Interview with Eliza Skinner

Eliza Skinner says she envies people in the entertainment industry who can just pick one craft and stick with it, but her more all-over-the-map approach certainly made my job as an interviewer easier. It’s hard to be at a loss for questions when you’re talking to someone who is lauded for her improv, standup, writing, acting, and freestyle rap battles, among other things. When Eliza’s not teaching and performing musical improv at the UCB Theater, writing scripts, and acting in videos, she can be seen co-hosting the weekly standup show Magic Bag with DC Pierson. In fact, the only real challenge on my side of the interview was figuring out how to cover such a vast and varied talent in one 40-minute Skype session. We talked last Sunday afternoon and what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: You’re hosting Magic Bag in a couple hours right?

Eliza Skinner: I am, yeah.

BB: How’s it been, doing it every week?

ES: It’s been fun. I really like working with DC and having to do a show every week kind of forces you to write new material. I’m not always great about writing new material for every show, but it does kind of motivate me to add some new stuff. It’s really low stakes, low pressure. It’s not something we invite industry to. We don’t tape there. It’s just a place where it’s safe to try new stuff out. It’s been really more fun than anything.

BB: You do standup, improv, acting and script-writing. What do you think is the advantage of having a split focus and doing a lot of things at the same time?

ES: For me the advantage has been momentum. When I try to focus on just one thing, I feel very dragged down and stuck. A few years ago, I remember having a meeting with a manager and she was like “well, are you gonna be an actor or a writer? You have to pick one.” And I was like “oh, okay, she knows what she’s talking about,” so I decided to just focus on writing. I couldn’t just do acting. I would be very uncomfortable not being able to generate my own material, having to wait to have somebody call me. So I tried just being a writer and writing just one kind of thing. I couldn’t do it. I would just sit there and stare at my computer. And while there is something to having some discipline and pushing through those moments, I’ve found that when I’m busy, I stay busy. If I go to a show, when I come home, I’m kind of jazzed up and I don’t want to just watch TV; I’ll sit down and write something. And if I’ve been writing all day, I want to go out and do some new standup jokes. And if I want to interact with other people, I can do improv.

BB: So it’s kind of an overall mindset changer to have these different things to do.

ES: Yeah, and for a long time I was like “be a good girl, chain yourself to the desk, and do the work you’ve assigned yourself.” Then I realized that just depressed me so much. (laughs) I couldn’t work that way. I kind of have to zigzag all around and likewise my career has zigzagged all around. I very much envy the people who know the exact one thing they want and just go after that, because they reach it much quicker.

BB: Yeah, but I guess it’s not altogether natural for most people. What if DC hadn’t written a novel just because that’s not conventionally what improv/sketch comedians do? That perception seems kind of dated–that you have to choose one thing.

ES: Yeah, I think it is too. As I said, I did talk to that one manager who told me that and that was a few years ago. Now, I feel like it is seen as an advantage; those are the types people want to work with and it’s exciting because the finished product that they make is more multifaceted. Like DC’s stuff–his book at one point had a playlist that went along with it and that’s going to inform when it becomes a movie. If he was just a novelist sitting in a room, writing a book, I don’t think that he would have even thought to explore all those different avenues. I think you’re right; it is very dated to just do one thing, unless that’s what you want to do, in which case that’s fine. My sister is an actress and that’s all she wanted to do and all she does and she hit it really early.

BB: Yeah, you grew up with that, right? With her auditioning and stuff?

ES: Mhm.

BB: Did that sort of shape you and what you’re doing now?

ES: Yeah, definitely. It probably almost held me back in ways because, you know, I had little sister stuff where I was like “oh, I’m not gonna be like her.” Just, any things that a little sister would see in a big sister and go “ew,” were things I equated with actors. When in fact, I’m a performer. I should’ve just gone with it. Finally, I had to be like “oh those are decisions you made when you were a child. You can let go of those decisions now.”

BB: Did you see yourself as anything creative? Did you see yourself as a writer or a performer in any capacity in those years?

ES: I didn’t know about all the jobs that were available. I knew about acting because of my sister and I knew about musical theater, so I liked those. I wanted to be an actor or maybe a director, but mostly an actor. But the whole time, I was writing. I used to write funny stories all the time when I was a kid and win little prizes for funny stories and I loved comedy. It took me a long time to realize that jobs like sketch comedy were real jobs and that I was better at them than just anybody would be, because, you know, everybody’s funny. Everybody jokes around. So, to think that you’re better at it than everybody else isn’t most people’s first thought. It’s like saying “I’m better at breathing. I’ll do that for a living. I’m gonna be a professional breather.”

BB: (laughs) So for you, when was the turning point of realizing that you were better at it than the average person?

ES: I went to school in this little college town and there wasn’t anything else there besides the school, so there wasn’t any form of entertainment besides the local improv group. And one of my housemates wanted to go audition for this group. They would have auditions once a year and between one and two hundred people would show up. They took all day and they would just eliminate people until they had gotten down to just a few, and out of all of those people, my roommate and I got cast. I’d never seen them perform. I had just gone to keep my roommate company and I had no idea that I was going to be good at it, so I instantly was like “whoa improv! That’s my thing!” And I went online and found out about improv festivals and tried to get the whole group to go and they wouldn’t, so I just drove myself to an improv festival halfway across the country. It was great. Then after college, I was like “well, I’m done with that. I’m gonna be an agent.”

BB: Really?

ES: Yeah, absolutely. I thought I was going to be a talent agent. Did that for four months.

BB: What is the career path for that? Did you Google “how to be a talent agent?”

ES: Well my sister was an actor so I was like “do you know any agents?” And she was like “I know mine. You can go be his assistant.” So that’s what I did. I stayed there for four months and it was the worst. It was not fun at all. Possibly, being an adult with a job was shockingly unfun to me at that point, but it was pretty bad, so I stopped working there and started working at a hotel. But I thought, “I shouldn’t live in NewYork just to work at a hotel. What could I do to make it worthwhile?”

And I remembered improv, so I started taking improv classes again. I took a couple improv classes–like one class with a few sessions–and I wasn’t crazy about it, but then they were having auditions for their touring company so I just showed up. I got an audition and I got cast again out of a lot of people. I just kept falling into improv and having it work out very easily without a lot of effort, so I thought “what if I actually put effort into this? What if I tried,” which, in your early twenties is not a cool thing to do, but I decided to really give it a shot. The part I always liked the most was the musical improv stuff–improvising whole musicals or even just songs. Because I had grown up doing musical theater, I kind of had those pathways in my brain already, so it was fun and easy.

BB: Was there ever, at that beginning stage, a confidence issue? To have never done it before and to just jump in and be like “oh, I’m really good at this…”

ES: I’m sure a little bit. You kind of learn some things as craft, growing up doing musical theater. Things like where you look–that your eyes should go right above everybody’s heads, that you should stand up straight–all these things that basically ape confidence. I learned that no matter how you feel, once you get on stage, you do these things and that creates a certain level of confidence, which ended up being a huge boon to me with improv and is actually something I teach in my classes now. I would’ve walked around looking like I was terrified to be on stage as any sane human would be. But I also really have this (laughs)…thing with fear. If I notice fear, I kind of grab onto it and go after it…

BB: Like in an aggressive way?

ES: Yeah, like “oh, that thing scares me? Well then I’m gonna do that thing.” It’s almost like a childish approach to fear. Not with physical stuff, like I’m not going to jump out of a plane, but the way that I act and who I interact with and how I interact with them. That idea of fear is kind of a motivator for me and it’s a challenge. In any kind of improv, I love being given those challenges and having to figure them out and figure out “well how do I do a whole song that rhymes and has feeling to it?” It’s a fun little game for my brain to unpack. I was always far more distracted by that than by any kind of terror or insecurity.

BB: You said when you were on A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume that you really liked being around people who inspire you in your work. Could you talk about how and why that’s important to you?

ES: Yeah well, it’s fun to bounce ideas off of people. When you’re with funny people and you’re joking around, you’re coming up with ideas that can be used other places. I love it when that is the way standup is done. A good friend of mine–Baron Vaughn, hilarious standup–you’ll be hanging out with him and you’ll say something funny and he’s like “that’s a bit. Write it down right now.”

And I’ve started doing that to people also. You get up on stage and try to make those little snippets of things from conversations into whole standup bits, which makes you feel like your general funniness isn’t for naught. You’re not losing those little thoughts you have all day that you would lose if someone wasn’t sitting across from you saying “hey, write that down.”

Also, seeing what people are capable of helps me. I feel like a lot of people have a very negative connotation with the idea of competition. I think competition is great. When I see one of my friends doing some new, cool thing, I’m like “oh, that’s a thing we can do?” Like with DC (Pierson), it’s like “we can write a novel?” It opens these doors you wouldn’t have thought of.

BB: You’ve said that emotion is very important to musical improv. How do you access it consistently?

ES: Oh, by being a raw nerve of a human being. (laughs) I’m joking but it’s a little bit true. I just try to remember emotional experiences. In my classes I get people to sing songs about things that are important to them. Sometimes those are dark things and sometimes those are small things, but if they’re important to somebody, then there’s a lot of feeling attached. I don’t think there’s any point to having a song that is about something you don’t care about. Nobody sings songs like (singing halfheartedly) “yeah I have an old box in my room and I should get rid of it,” unless they can attach some meaning. It’s music; it’s essentially just emotion heightened.

BB: The thing you brought up about remembering emotions made me think of method acting, where you remember a sad moment in your life to bring out an emotional performance. Does that actually come up a lot?

ES: Oh yeah. For me, I’ve been doing it so long, I don’t still have to make associations with certain people and instances. I just kind of have buttons in my head that trigger certain emotions. It’s like there’s a getting-broken-up-with button, and a feeling-lost-and-abandoned button. But when I first started out, it was a lot of going to those specific times and places and feeling those feelings. It’s very cathartic and there’s some crazy in there too. I’ve dated people I’ve performed with and I remember doing a scene in a musical improv one time about a boy who had to give up his cow. I was playing the cow and my ex-boyfriend was playing the boy and suddenly the audience was like “what is going on? The boy and the cow are both crying but they both want each other to have good lives…” It just got real messy. So I’m glad I’ve moved past that.

BB: So do you think that doing musical improv is a little more imparting of yourself than doing standup? Because I would think it would be the other way around.

ES: It is the other way around. Well…as far as content goes, it’s the other way around. Like when I’m doing standup I’m saying things that actually happened to me, but with musical improv, I am kind of turning myself inside out a little bit. Like people can see what’s going on inside me in a different way than they can with standup…

BB: A less informational part of you.

ES: Yeah. More like “oh this is the goop that makes up you.” (laughs) “And I don’t know what the goop means or spells, but I can see what shape and viscosity the goop is,” to make it more complicated.

BB: (laughs) What are some of your favorite characters to play?

ES: The worst ones. The terrible people. I really like the baddies, because I feel like those are the parts of us that everybody’s scared of. Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy but everybody’s worried they’re the bad guy. Know what I mean?

BB: Yeah, I’ve noticed it’s a lot of people who don’t know they’re really bad people.

ES: Yeah, well I think most people who are really bad people don’t know. Everyone thinks they have reasons for doing what they do and if they could just explain it to everybody, then everybody would get it. And I think, like many of us, I’m scared that at my heart I’m just a bad person, just a sea-witch of a human, so, to get close to that and explore that is really fun, and I think that it’s fun for audiences. It’s also fun as a woman because so many of the parts that are created for us from a male gaze are women who are just plot points, rather than characters. Or they’re just kind of black and white–either very, very good, or just pointlessly terrible. So, playing somebody who’s bad but complicated, and for a reason, and just shamelessly ugly, is really fun.

BB: Who are some of the comedians you really liked when you were younger?

ES: Fozzie Bear.

BB: Excellent.

ES: I didn’t know that he was a bad comedian. I just liked that he got to go on stage, delivered punchlines and then said “waka waka.”

BB: So you liked his punchlines unironically?

ES: Yeah, I always liked the rhythm of comedy. I think that happens with a lot of people, at least musical people. Even when you’re too young to get the comedy, you understand the rhythm of it. Like “da dum, da dum, da dum.” I loved The Young Ones. It was more gross and terrible people living together. I loved French and Saunders. I always loved Jennifer Saunders–Ab Fab. She’s really great and, again, creates these unlikable characters and then makes you like them. I remember really liking Ellen Degeneres and her whimsy and her stream-of-consciousness stuff. And I loved Steve Martin, Bill Cosby–those were albums that I had and would listen to. I liked Monty Python a lot. I had a bunch of Python albums, specifically the music that they would have on their shows and that was probably a big influence. I don’t think I’m that absurdists but I think a lot of the people I liked were pretty absurd and character-based. Loved Martin Short. Big Dana Carvey fan.

BB: Where do your tastes go now?

ES: Honesty. People talking about how they actually feel, so Louis CK. I like a lot of my contemporaries, like people who are a couple steps ahead of me like Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress.  It’s hard to just name a couple names, because it’s kind of like asking “what foods do you like?” I can name a lot of foods that I like but I’m eating all day long. I’m listening to comedy, going to see comedy…I fell like it’s all pretty relevant and exciting.

BB: Is honesty something you try for in your own standup?

ES: Yeah. One of my pet peeves is hearing people say they did something on stage that they definitely didn’t do. Like if they’re like “this dog came up to me and I punched him in his face and stole his collar.” You didn’t do that. I would find it much more interesting if you said “and I wanted to punch him in his face and steal his collar.’” That distinction is pretty important to me. But even when people are being absurd and silly, I feel like if they’re really letting themselves connect with the audience somehow so we’re like “oh you’re making that all up, but I feel like you’re really letting us know you,” I still really appreciate that.

You can see Eliza’s standup at Magic Bag, every Sunday at 8pm, at The Little Modern Theater in Hollywood, CA.

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