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The first time I ever saw Tess Rafferty, she was dressed as a dancing maxi-pad. But this lady is no one-trick pony. She’s a stand-up comedian, writer for Comedy Central’s @Midnight, and author of the hysterically funny memoir, Recipes for Disaster. I talk to her about stand-up, working in a male-dominated industry and how to not eff up Thanksgiving dinner.
When did you start doing comedy?
At Emerson College. I liked to write, perform and act… I started writing mostly because I didn’t like a lot of the parts written for women. I always ended up as someone’s mother, whore, maid or wife. I was trying to write my own scripts and pieces. Mostly monologues. They weren’t stand-up, they weren’t plays. Today, I’d just have a blog or something, but we didn’t have those when I was in college.
That got me into stand-up. [Stand-up] was the best outlet for me. I always knew I could make friends laugh, but I never thought I could make other people laugh.
Tell me about your first set.
The first time goes really well for anyone who does stand-up, otherwise you’d never go back. I still look at the tape of my first set sometimes and go, I did really well. I sometimes would kill to have that many laughs.
I was at the Comedy Connection in Boston. It was a comedy club where I was doing sketch. I was persuaded to do stand up one night. So I went up with this piece that I’d done as a monologue. Someone, who became my husband later on, told me he could help me get a spot at a club.
Were you nervous?
Absolutely. The thing about a comedy club, which is why comedians all become drunks, is that there is so much waiting. It’s like jury duty. Especially open mic night. You’re just waiting for them to call your name.
I’ve heard the stand-up comedy scene isn’t necessarily friendly. True?
Everybody is very competitive. It’s really unnecessary. It’s almost enough to make you really resentful… It’s kind of like musical chairs. If someone else gets something, it’s one less opportunity for you. I think it’s worse for women or minorities… the perception is that only one woman is going to get something this year. Or only one spot is going to go to a black guy or Latino or something. It’s a very strange, but I think that is something that is assumed. I don’t know where that started.
You were the only female writer on a staff of eight for The Soup. What was that like?
We had a really great group at The Soup. We gelled. The head writer had been a friend of mine for years. The whole shop was really small, too. It was all I knew for so long.
[As a female comic], sometimes I feel there is a little bit of men warming up to you, and what you’re saying and laughing at your jokes. Or even just learning what you sense of humor is.
I worked on a gig two years ago where I knew a lot of the guys, but had never worked with them. Every day, you had to read your jokes out loud. It took me until the third day to get any laughs in the room. And I can’t tell you that my jokes were any funnier than they were on the first. I don’t know what that was. Maybe I was more comfortable, maybe they had to get used to listening to me. And I don’t know that men don’t experience this either.
You’re known for throwing epic dinner parties, which you chronicled in your book, Recipes for Disaster. What sparked your interest in food?
I grew up with a big Italian family and have memories of big Saturday and Sunday dinners. So that is in my genes… I’ve always enjoyed the kind of socializing that happens around the table. I always had this image of myself having this house where people came over and had a lot of laughs and good food.
It’s fun to go out to dinner, too. I’d have a lot more money if I was content to just go out to a movie with my friends, but you can’t talk during a movie. And even if you want to talk about the movie later, you have to go somewhere and do it. You can’t sit on the sidewalk and talk about a movie. Well, I guess some people can, but I am going to want a drink in my hand and I am probably going to be hungry.
Dinner party or dining out… what’s your preference?
A restaurant can be loud, distracting or you can get rushed. But actually, my husband and I have found that we have better conversations when we’re out to eat. In that sense, a restaurant works for us because we don’t have any distractions. Someone else is bringing us the food and we’re just there to talk to each other.
But with a group, it’s nice to invite people over. If you’re all sitting around a table, you don’t have any distractions. You‘re all looking at each other and you’re there for the duration. We don’t have a lot of experiences like that.
Plus I’m kind of an irrepressible show-off. If I find a new way to make something, I am all about that and I want my friends to have it.
I think a lot of people have anxiety about hosting an important meal at their home—like Thanksgiving. You relish in it. Advice for a reluctant host?
I would say try to stick to thing that can be prepped ahead of time. For Thanksgiving, I’ll do the desserts and stuffing ahead of time. Potatoes are harder to reheat. And the nice thing about the turkey is that you’re slow roasting it, which is pretty forgiving. You put it in the oven and you baste every hour.
And have good ideas for what people can bring. Don’t be afraid to call on people for that stuff. Everyone always forgets the ice cream for the pie.
Who’s dinner guest would you like to be?
Mario Batali with Anthony Bourdain as entertainment value. I think those are the first two that come to mind. So much wine and also Mario Batali seems like so much fun from everything I’ve read and heard about him.
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Follow Tess Raffertty on Twitter & check out her Unhappy Hour videos, preferably with a glass of wine. Her book, Recipes for Disaster, is the perfect read for the food and wine geek in your life. Or yourself.
You can check out my other Everyday Eleanor interviews in the archives. You know you want to.
I want to hear your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.