YOU KNOW THOSE PEOPLE who are funny even when they think they aren’t? Shari VanderWerf may fall into that category because when she responded to my questions for this edition of Inside Jokes, she apologized because she didn’t think her answers were very funny.
She was wrong, as you’ll soon discover.
VanderWerf, a writer, occasional stand-up comic and bona fide Twitter badass, was out of the comedy world for nearly two decades while she and her husband raised their three sons. Luckily for us, she’s back and probably better than ever. At the very least, she stopped performing with pom-poms under her armpits. Try getting that visual out of your head.
In this wide-ranging interview, VanderWerf discusses her family’s influence on her comedy, getting booed offstage at The Comedy Store in L.A., her early comedic influences and much more. Enjoy and don’t forget to check out The Best Tweet I Can Find In Five Minutes at the end.
TC: Don’t be shy: Who is your most famous friend?
SV: That would have to be our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. LOLJK. He hates me. I’m a Jew.
To tell you the truth, none of my close friends are famous. I do, however, have many celebrity acquaintances. For example, I went to college with Judd Apatow. I worked as a nanny for Bette Midler. I performed in a show with Ned Beatty. I did comedy with Doug Benson in the ’80s. I’m related to Barbara Walters by marriage on my dad’s side. And I’m Twitter friends with many of my comedic heroes. But I’m not close enough with any of those people to ask them for a kidney.
TC: You live in Boston and are a Massachusetts native. The Boston accent is my absolute favorite and I try to mimic it in daily conversations. You hate people like me don’t you?
SV: I may hate you for other reasons, but not for that. The funny thing is that I don’t know a lot of people who have that stereotypical accent. People tell me all the time that I sound Canadian. I fear the Cheers/Mark Wahlberg/Jimmy Fallon accent we all know so well has become largely a work of fiction. You won’t hear it if you pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd anymore. Maybe in Chahlestown at a bah.
TC: When did you first realize you wanted to make comedy your career and how long did it take for you to start experiencing some success?
SV: I fell in love with comedy as a teenager due in large part to some of my early heroes like Stephen Wright, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. When I went out to California to attend college at USC, I decided to give stand-up a try and somehow got booked at a showcase at The Ice House, a comedy club in Pasadena. I did a horrible, schlocky prop comedy set in which I stuck pom-poms under my armpits to do an impression of Madonna, who at the time had some nude photos out in which she appeared unshaven. That idiotic material killed, and I caught the bug.
I started to experience some success pretty early on, getting booked at a few large shows with well-known comics. But I think that had less to do with my talent and more to do with my connection to USC and the fact that a 19-year-old female comedian was something of a novelty back then.
But success is a relative term. Just because you are getting bookings, it doesn’t mean you are making a lot of money. After graduating college and moving back to Massachusetts, I realized I’d need a day job if I wanted luxuries like food and medical care. So I got a job in advertising, met my husband, got married, had kids and realized that the lifestyle of a working comedian did not mesh well with that of a working parent. So comedy got shelved for the better part of 20 years while I raised my family.
Twitter is really what got me back into it. And I credit Twitter for a large part of recent successes I’ve had like being hired to write jokes for television, consult on scripts and even being asked to try out for Saturday Night Live.
TC: Which was a bigger thrill: playing The Comedy Store or The Improv in L.A. or Caroline’s in New York City? All are legendary comedy rooms.
SV: I always seemed to have bad luck at The Comedy Store. It was the site of what was probably my most frightening comedy experience when I made a tasteless AIDS joke and was actually booed off the stage. The Improv in L.A. has a great vibe, very positive and upbeat. It’s a fun place to hang out because a lot of big names like Seinfeld and Leno would just drop in to do 10 minutes, and they were very approachable and down to earth. I hope to get back there someday soon. I only performed at Caroline’s once, but it was a fun show. I think East Coast audiences are more receptive to my material.
TC: In the free clip I listened to on your website, you liken the sound you make during an orgasm to “Flipper choking on a slide whistle.” First of all, sexy. Secondly, are dolphins the most perverted sea creatures? I vote yes.
SV: Don’t dolphins rape people? I’m pretty sure I’ve read that. So, yeah, way perverted.
TC: I’m excited about many of the new comics I’m discovering and love the trend of comedians taking control of their album sales, a la Louis CK, Jim Gaffigan, Rob Delaney, Tig Notaro, et al. What is your opinion of the comedy scene these days?
SV: I think the Internet is the best thing to happen to comedy in a long time. Twitter and sites like College Humor and The Onion and YouTube have given comics a vast new array of tools, ways to network and sources of potential income. And comics like the ones you named are at the forefront, leading us up and out of the shadows of dark clubs and small audiences and into the computers and homes of hundreds of thousands of people who might not have the time or cash to go see live comedy.
For me personally, the Internet has brought into focus the fact that, in my soul, I am more of a writer than a performer. It has given me the network of support I needed to get projects off the ground and even sold and aired on TV.
TC: You’re married with three sons. Do you ever bounce joke ideas off of the boys and if so, how often are you satisfied with their feedback?
SV: To be perfectly honest, my kids are far funnier than I am. They have even written some of my most successful material. My oldest is a physicist and a musician and possesses one of the most creative minds I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. My middle child is an actor and an improviser and is a great judge of what works and why. I think I’ve been off my game lately because those two have gone off to college, taking a lot of inspiration and two thirds of my writing staff with them. My youngest is my toughest critic, so if he laughs I know I have a sure winner. And my poor husband, Pieter, is my favorite comedic foil. He takes a lot of ribbing but is a great sport about it. Whenever he’s in the audience, I always introduce him to the crowd and tell them, “My husband hates that I overshare in my act. But I think he’s just cranky because his hemorrhoids are bothering him.”
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find In Five Minutes:
If you wanna be mean to your grandparents, hold your hand way above their heads and say, “I remember when you were this big!”
— caprice crane (@capricecrane) October 9, 2012
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