by Alicia Swiz | Photography by Amanda Glynn Photography
When Kelsie Huff enters Angel Food Bakery on a snowy Chicago afternoon she is wearing a knitted hat in the design of a cupcake. It’s freaking adorable, as is Huff herself. But don’t let those wide-eyes and rosy cheeks fool you. Huff is much more than an all around swell gal. Co-Producer and founder of The Kate’s Comedy, a show that features up and coming women comics, and teacher of The Feminine Comique, a ladies only stand-up class, Huff is a pee-your-pants hilarious stand-up and a poignant storyteller who is elevating Chicago’s comedic legacy. With cupcakes. And laughing.

Q: You moved to Chicago for college. Did you come with the intent of becoming a comic?

So, what happened was, I watched Good Morning Vietnam and I thought that was what radio was really like so I went into radio to be Robin Williams and save the world. Theater was always a hobby and I did improv in college but my parents were like “No.” I don’t know if it’s a Midwest thing or what but it was very you have to have a job. So, radio was my job.

Then I started doing improv and I took a solo performing class with Stephanie Shaw who was a Neo-Futurist. Then I saw the Neo-Futurists and it, they just blew my mind. I love them! Ever since then… Comedy. Performance.

Q: When did stand-up come in to the picture for you?

I really had it in my mind that I wanted to do a solo show. So, I did HUFFS and loved it. I just had to do it and it went way better than I thought. It was about
The idea that women aren’t funny, that never came into my existence until my 20’s. And [now] I am aware of it and that it exists in the world.
going back home for a funeral and family and dead alcoholic dad stuff. A real laugh riot. That was a story I had to get out. Before stand up and before live lit was really “happening.” I thought “I’ll just tell stories in bars and of course people will love it!” They did not. They hated it. “Get to the jokes, broad.” And, that got me to stand up and I just fell in love with it.

Q: You’ve been teaching the Feminine Comique (FemCom), a women only stand-up class created by Chicago comic Cameron Esposito, for over a year. What is the benefit or appeal of the women only space?

The reason [Cameron] asked me [to take over FemCom] is because it’s the same philosophy as The Kate's. Positive. It’s all about what you can do as opposed to what you’re not getting. Making the change that you want to see.

I think the significant difference is the philosophy of not apologizing. You don't really have to reprogram men not to [apologize]. I’m not saying men in stand up don't have their own problems. If you're a comic you're a pretty bruised human being. But the tendency to apologize is more common in women. You have to learn to give up the perfection. The all or nothing mentality….

In the beginning, people would ask me all the time “Why do you need a class? You can’t teach people to be funny?” And that's not what we are doing. We’re just giving ladies a one up to believe in themselves to go and do this thing. Most aren’t doing it for the rest of their lives, that's not what they are there for. They are there to conquer this fear. To cross it off their list. I have had so many girls say FemCom helped me in my life.

Q: How does gender play a part in your own process? Do you feel like you have been more challenged by being a woman? To prove yourself?

I never felt like it was a gender thing and growing up in a “farm community” I never knew that women weren’t funny. Ladies were loud and brassy. I mean they had other problems but they were funny. And, I feel like there are tons of females in sketch and just theater in general. My experience with improv was I would watch and not feel confident in going up. No one was telling me I was bad. I just didn’t have that confidence yet. But, the idea that women aren’t funny, that never came into my existence until my 20’s. And [now] I am aware of it and that it exists in the world.

Q: Was there a specific moment that made you more aware?

There was this one time Amy Sumpter [Chicago comedian and co-founder of The Kate’s] and I were performing and were told we couldn’t do a bit because it was offensive to the audience. It was a nursing home – Irish Catholic old ladies – people
I definitely have a point of view. You have to have a voice. You've had experiences and your own unique view of the world. No one else can see the world through your eyes.
that I know and Amy knows. In the end, it was just bad direction because the audience would have loved the bit.

Q: What was the sketch?

It was basically about a doctor who is out of context. Like they want the patient to be really comfortable with her body and the patient just isn’t. I based it off my Planned Parenthood lady. Judy the genius lady! She just like screams at me “Your cervix is beautiful.” It was playful and not offensive and these women would’ve loved it.

So then the guys did a sketch that was super violent where they basically killed their father. And Amy and I, that was the first second where we were like, that’s weird. And for a while there, and this I do regret, it made me extremely angry. I don’t regret the anger. I regret that I was like “fuck sketch comedy.” I blamed the entire world of sketch comedy for one bad direction and you can’t do that. It took me this other route, which I appreciate but when faced with those types of things I have the tendency to just shut it down instead of using my anger as fuel for the positive. Which I have now learned to do.

Q: In your stand-up, you have a few jokes that are explicitly feminist. I love your joke about Gloria Steinem and Rosie the Riveter. But, it relies on the audience having a certain amount of knowledge. How much does that affect your performance?

(Laughs) I did that joke at Laugh Factory to total silence so I stopped and was like “Listen up, you jacks. Don’t you know who Gloria Steinem is?” Oh, public school. Oh no.

Q: Now that you have the awareness, how conscious are you about the message?

For me, I definitely have a point of view. You have to have a voice. You've had experiences and your own unique view of the world. No one else can see the world through your eyes, so for me using personal experiences makes me feel less like I am on a soapbox or pushing a harsh agenda. Performers I love do that and do it well.

Q: Like who?

I know it’s so cliché but Richard Pryor. I remember in college I saw this bootleg VHS tape of one of his performances. There was this moment where he was doing a character and he began to cry – the character. It was this poignant moment about being a broke, African American kid, really powerful, and a minute later people are laughing. But, you could see the energy in the room even on this terrible bootleg video. He had something to say. He was vulnerable.

The vulnerability is what I think really hooks people. It is so powerful. When a performer is vulnerable people really let their guard down they are vulnerable so that opens them up to listening rather than someone coming on stage and being like “You’re all idiots.”

The number of women and men with this vulnerability has increased in insane ways. Mike Birbiglia is hilarious. Louis CK is a top comedian right now and is super vulnerable but also has that edge.... For me, I’m most comfortable going through [personal experience]. How absurd is this? Why is it not working? And, being surrounded by like-minded weirdos. It gives you a boost so you’re not so alone.

Comedy is so funny. I mean any art is. You’re just putting your junk out there and hoping anyone will buy it. You need other people… That's how it works. It’s like getting at the cool kids table!
Q: Which is why I think the Feminine Comique is so successful!

For sure! It’s a community. When Cameron left even we didn't know if people would respond. If they would still do it. But, we had to add another class. And we’ve now had 255 women go through the class. AMAZING!

Ed. Note: Feminine Comique creator, Cameron Esposito, recently appeared on The Tonight Show and was “waved over” to join Jay Leno on the couch – a game changing moment in the career of a comic and additionally inspiring because she is an openly gay woman.

Q: How do you think Cameron’s success speaks to the movement of comedy, overall?

Seeing someone make that huge accomplishment and you feel like it’s your own. And then someone says “You're the future” and you’re like that's me! It was the same night as Chicago Underground Comedy (ChUC) and they broadcast it live at the Beat Kitchen. So, there is this room full of comics most who know Cameron personally and many who have taken FemCom, sitting together in a room where she has performed watching. It legitimized all of us. Which is the jam.

Q: How important is that legitimacy? Do you think it’s more important for women?

Comedy is so funny. I mean any art is. You’re just putting your junk out there and hoping anyone will buy it. You need other people. Not necessarily men but an audience. That's how it works. It’s like getting at the cool kids table! If one cool kid likes you, you’re in. Listen, everything I learned was from John Hughes movies. And that, of course, happens for dudes too. Especially in comedy.

People simplify the comedy scene immensely. And they do think it is women vs. men. That is not the case. There is stuff going on there in the scene because it's going on in the world. There are – men are feminists!

Q: Totally! Just like there are misogynist women.

We’re all unique snowflakes... It doesn’t matter what we are carrying in our pants. There are men in the Chicago comedy scene who have been the most supportive men I have met in comedy. In the world. I’m sure it can be really frustrating for a man. It has to be. “I’m not one of those dudes please don't put me in that dude category.”

The thing about Chicago is that there is no pressure... This is not the right place for fame. If you want that don't deny it. But if you want to stay and grind it out and be hustler – stay in Chicago.
Q: What’s next for you? What are you doing? Where can we see you?

I’m working on a new solo show: Ranch Dressing and Other Coping Mechanisms.
Running into a lot of hate. Self hate. A lot of rage. We’ll see. Hoping for the spring. I’m teaching a live-lit class at Story Studio and the next round of FemCom classes start in March. And, I’m touring. Touring (scoffs) – I’m doing Madison. Ed. Note: Keep up with Kelsie and track her whereabouts around Chicago at KelsieHuff.com

Q: Will you stay in Chicago? Is it possible to be successful here? It seems like people hit a certain point and then have to choose either L.A. or New York…

The thing about Chicago is that there is no pressure. It is a great place to try things. There is space, there is interest and people will follow you. You have to bring the industry for people to stay. This is not the right place for fame. If you want that don't deny it. Go for it! But if you want to stay and grind it out and be hustler – stay in Chicago. I don't want to leave. I have things connecting me: I have some steady work, I have a husband. We made that deal so. Plus, I don't have the draw to write for TV and I’m too old for L.A. I want to do stand-up, I want to work roads and colleges. I love teaching. Who knew?

There is no direct path. You can’t hand in a resume. The fun and the horror is that you have to create your journey while you’re doing it. And I love this town. I came here to conquer it and I haven’t yet.

Yet.


2014-01-27