I talked to stand-up comedian Erin Foley via telephone from her home in California in anticipation of her two shows in Rhode Island next week. We discussed hoops, stand-up comedy and her love of RI.

TJ: Before we start, I feel like we could actually be friends. I did some recon on you and you played hoops and then studied acting in college and now you do stand-up and all three of those things are true for me as well.

EF: I was actually not an acting major in college. I’ve done little to no acting.

TJ: Oh, really? Ok, I must have read that wrong.

EF: No, no, I have a minor in theater, but I got my degree in American studies. But wait — you do stand up in Rhode Island?

TJ: Yes, a little. I will be performing at the Comedy Connection on the 29th.

EF: That’s awesome.

TJ: Yeah. And you’re also a big basketball fan. I am, too.

EF: I love it.

TJ: Yeah, me too. I played my whole life.

EF: Who’s your team?

TJ: Well, I am from New England, but when I was younger I always loved Magic Johnson, and then Shaq. So I was a big Lakers fan, but I hate Kobe, so I guess based on geography I am a Celtics fan.

EF: Sorry, I am not a Lakers fan. I do not like the Lakers, but I would root for the Lakers over the Heat.

TJ: Who is your team?

EF: Well, I’m a New Yorker, before I moved to New England, so I’m a Knicks fan. But when i moved to Rhode Island in seventh grade, my junior high school coach thought he was Larry Bird, and everyone here was such a Celtics fan so we went to so many Celtics games. It was awesome, so I definitely have a little sweet spot for the Celtics.

TJ: The old garden was such a great place to see a game.

EF: I mean, to see Larry Bird when you were 12 or 13 — I mean, or at any age — and you’re playing basketball. It was like the greatest thing ever. Those teams were so great, and all those battles with the Lakers were just awesome.

TJ: I totally agree. We’re about the same age so I was watching those games as well, and any time we could go to the garden and watch those teams was always great. I mean, even the Knicks who had Patrick Ewing, you never felt like they were going to take it away from the Celtics in the east.

EF: I’d always have one eye on the Knicks, but when I moved back to New York City in ’96, the Knicks were somewhat decent. You follow sports teams through good, bad and ugly when they’re your teams, but it was fun to be in NYC and have a little resurgence for the Knicks around then too, with Sprewell, and Alan Houston and Starks, and that crew, so it was kinda’ fun to see them win a little. I’m more of a college hoops fan than pro. I think after the Bird era, and with Miami and its “super group” I’ve kinda lost my passion for it, so I watch a lot of college hoops.

TJ: I actually have some real questions that pertain to stand-up for you.

EF: I’d rather talk about basketball.

TJ: Oh, man. I would too, believe me, but if I hand this in, they’ll be like, “What the hell is this?” So, have you written any farm to table jokes yet?

EF: (laughs) Working on it. I just feel like I am around all these cooking people.

TJ: Providence is very big with that. It’s a huge farm to table restaurant scene. So if you had them, I am sure they’d go over very well.

EF: (laughing) Actually, I wrote it and I thought, “I don’t even know what that means. But it made me laugh, because it seems like now you have to get the food as soon as its uprooted from the ground to their mouths, like there needs to be an express service and people are obsessed with this, which is a good thing! Everything local is actually good.

TJ: What are you reading these days? Are you reading anything good?

EF: First of all, let me just say that I am already loving this interview because every single person calls me up and asks “How did you get started in comedy?”

TJ: Well, I kinda stalked you online and wanted to stay away from the obvious stand-up or being gay questions.

EF: I would much rather talk about being gay than how I started in stand-up in 1999, you know…

TJ: Well, you’ve been doing stand-up longer than you’ve been gay, so it’s a newer thing for you, I’m assuming?

EF: Yeah! I just started talking about the gay stuff and being gay maybe seven, eight years ago…

TJ: Probably because you heard about the Gay Mafia in Hollywood and you wanted in and that’s how…

EF: Yes! Let me tell ya, I run this town! (both laughing) But I did want to spend some time back in RI, so I tried to figure out a way to perform there, especially in the summer. I think its going to be a lot of fun, and maybe a little chaotic. I mean, there’s a drag queen, standing room, I think its going to be hilarious.

TJ: I think it will be a lot of fun. And you’ll definitely have a good time.

EF: It will be totally fun. We’ve already sold about 100 seats. I can’t wait. I haven’t been back to RI, really, in about five years, so I am really excited to be there for the week. I am sure the drag queen will do something super fun, and then I will do my set and then we’ll have some beers. I can’t wait.

TJ: Where in RI did you live?

EF: I lived in South Kingstown.

TJ: Oh, wow. I am on my way down there right after this interview.

EF: Are you going to the beach? Or what are you doing down there?

TJ: My friends are in from NYC and we are going to the Matunuck Oyster Bar. If you are staying down in SK you definitely need to hit that place.

EF: Oh, that place is great. I actually worked for nine summers slinging fish at Captain Jacks.

TJ: Shut up!?

EF: Nope. Not gonna shut up!

TJ: So, are you reading any books?

EF: I am reading a couple books. Really good. If you know George Saunders, he’s this amazing short story writer. His new collection is called 10th of December. I’m knee deep into that one, and someone gave me a book called The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. So then I’ll bang through that one. I usually read a couple at a time.

TJ: What are you listening to right now? What music are you listening to?

EF: Well, I have a small problem with cheesy pop dance music. I run this show every month at the Hollywood Improv, and I think sometimes I work on the play list more than my jokes that night…

TJ: Is that the Gays R Us show?

EF: Yeah. It’s so fun. One of the fun things I like to do is sometimes I’ll go to iTunes and just download the top five cheesiest songs. The other day I found myself downloading Miley Cyrus and I thought to myself, “Something has gone terribly wrong.” But I do like the cheesy dance. I just got the new JT, and the new Jay-Z Holy Grail album. And when I am not doing the cheesy pop, I love this woman, and I know I am going to say her name wrong (pronounces it perfectly) Emeli Sande’…

TJ: She’s great! That song “Heaven” or “Lifetime.” Did you just get her CD?

EF: No, I got it last year. A friend of mine saw her in concert somewhere and sent it to me. You know it’s a rarity these days when you love an entire album. But her entire album start to finish is just quality. So that’s been on replay for quite a while.

TJ: How about stuff that you are watching right now.

EF: Well, I like to take Sunday nights and Mondays off because I do so much club work during the weekends. Sometimes it’s Wednesday through Saturday, sometimes it’s Thursday through Saturday. By the time I get on the plane Sunday morning, I don’t want to entertain anyone until about Tuesday. So I like to take those nights off. Sunday nights have been kinda fun because I have people over and we watch “Dexter” and “True Blood,” which seems really dark, but they are both such good shows, and its fun to have them on the same night. And then I went to town on “Orange Is the New Black” on Netfix because it’s so good. Have you seen it yet?

TJ: No. I haven’t seen it yet.

EF: I’ve been enjoying the online TV. I’ve enjoyed watching it like that — the kind of gorge watching. I am never home; I’m traveling and then I get home and get so excited and just keep banging them out.

TJ: I’ve never seen “Breaking Bad,” but I am excited to get started binging on that.

EF: Yeah. I heard that was good. My sister watches it and she said its unreal. I just don’t know if I could tackle another show where I know I would have to pony up for seven seasons. It’s like, I’ll start now and then it’s Christmas.

TJ: Yeah. Definitely. Who are your favorite comedians and who are your influences as a comedian? Who do you like to watch?

EF: I love to watch Maria Bamford. She’s probably my favorite. Also we’ve done a whole bunch of shows together now, and she’s the nicest woman off stage. I love when you put someone on a pedestal for so long, and then you meet them and they’re wonderful. I love Wanda Sykes since the dawn of time. Bill Burr.

TJ: He’s great.

EF: He’s so great. I do love some angry ranting. Judy Gold I love. Brian Regan is to die for.

TJ: Is there anyone who’s career you’d like to emulate? Is there anyone who you look at their career arc and say, “I could jump on that and be happy”?

EF: I don’t know about emulate, but you know who’s career I think is wonderful? Dennis Leary. That dude is so funny, and its definitely niche funny angry ranting, but he’s like, “This is me, this is what I’m gonna do,” and he’s made fantastic television shows. He and his two producing partners, they don’t make these flashy shows, but it’s just good television. I think his career is just so impressive as opposed to a cheesy funny dude who makes bad movie choices and it’s just like paycheck after paycheck. His is just a respectable career.

TJ: So you decided to do improv for a year as a kind of lark, and almost immediately got cast in a Cameron Crowe movie (Almost Famous). What were your expectations then, and has everything played out the way you imagined?

EF: No. Not at all. When I moved to NY and started doing improv and then got into stand-up, it was just this thing that I did. I never thought it was a career and I had plans to go to grad school because I wanted to teach. My sister is a teacher and my mom and aunt, so this career has just been one surprise, honest to God, after another. So, I got a manager really quickly and she was like, “Go on this audition.” So I started taking this acting class and it was terrifying, and I was like, “I can’t do this” because it was plays and real acting, which I had no experience with, but I did like the class because it was interesting. I am such a nerd, because I wanted to read all the plays. Not necessarily act in them, but I wanted to read them. And I wanted to see other people act them out. That, to me, was interesting. So I went in and Cameron Crowe was there. I didn’t know he was going to be there. And he loves stand-up comics and folks who can improvise, and that was what I was good at. I wasn’t good at the acting, but I was definitely good at the improvising. So he liked me and all of the sudden, I was in LA on a movie set. And I was like, “How did I get here? I just started.” So there were no expectations, there were no goals, I was just trying not to get fired. The first day I screwed up every line. I was so nervous. And everyone asked if I was going to move to LA, and I said, “No. I just got to New York.” Meanwhile, the whole time I was thinking, “Am I gay?” It was a tumultuous time in my life. It’s kinda like I did it backwards. It was an ass backwards process, but it was fun. We had so much fun. It was a wonderful experience.

TJ: What would you find more exciting: hitting a shot at the buzzer to win a game, acting in a Mamet show, or giving a mic drop comedy set performance?

EF: Hmmm. Well. That’s a really good question. Mamet is going to come in number three. If I’m being professional, I would say a drop the mic set, but if I’m really being honest with myself, it’s the catch from Eli Manning to win the Super Bowl.

TJ: So it’s football, it’s not even basketball shot to win it? You’re gonna go David Tyree on us?

EF: I’ll do the jump shot to win it for sure, but my first love and obsession is football. I’ll do the catch, wide receiver, end zone, spike the ball, we win. That’s probably number 1, number 2 is probably jump shot, 3 is drop the mic, 4 is a Christopher Durang play.

TJ: Have you been asked to do the show “Drunk History” yet?

EF: No. I don’t know those guys, but it seems so fun.

TJ: I watch that show, and I don’t know what this says about me, but the first thing I think is, “These people sure can’t handle their booze.” But what would you want to talk about if you had your own “Drunk History” episode?

EF: (laughing) Wow, that’s a really good question. Well, because I’m a lady and I am interested in women’s rights, I think it would be cool to explore Susan B. Anthony or Harriet Tubman. Those type of civil rights or women’s rights are really quite interesting to see how these movements got started. When there’s so much on the line and you are pioneering… I don’t even know if you consider it pioneering because you’re thinking, “Shit, we gotta vote!” To me that is important.

TJ: You talk about long distance relationships in your act. Do you have any advice for people in long distance relationships?

EF: Yes. I do. Make sure you write this down. Don’t do it! (both laugh) Do not, do not, do not do it!

TJ: (still laughing) That’s good.

EF: I mean, we work on it. We try to make it work. We’ve hit some snags, but the snags are not as a couple; it’s more the distance. Who’s going to go where what weekend. She’s to die for, but to get on a plane to see the person you are in love with, it’s the pits. The worst.

TJ: Now here’s my obligatory gay question: You have a zealous fan base, and though I feel comedy is truly one of the more meritocratic performance arts because if you’re funny, you’re funny, are you at all afraid of being pigeon holed as a gay comedian?

EF: I guess. I’m sure there is a lot of potential out there to not get stuff because I’m gay, but the experience I’ve had since I’ve started talking about being gay on stage has just been so wonderful and open and welcoming. It’s part of my life, so I don’t think of it that way. I think you’re more pigeon holed as a woman than you are as gay.

TJ: Is there something you wished you talked about in your stand-up set that you just can’t figure out how to work in? Is there something you are struggling to write jokes about?

EF: I wish I could talk about my parents more. They’re adorable, and not in a bad way. I’m just very thankful to have such a great relationship with my parents. But for me, they’re so funny, because they’re so ridiculous. And my mom is just so particular and kind of neurotic and my dad is so funny to me. I try to write jokes, but I have to say most of them do not work. And I wish they did, because everything is relatable when you’re in the middle of bumble weed and maybe the gay stuff isn’t the most relatable, but parents are. I have to say that has always bee my biggest challenge: trying to write about how ridiculous I think my parents are, but in a fun way.

TJ: Finally, RI just legalized gay marriage. Any chance that you are actually here to scout locations for your wedding?

EF: (Laughs) I think you’d have to ask my girlfriend that. If I ever were to get married though, I would have to say that if it didn’t happen in New York City, which is my other home, it would be amazing to get married in Rhode Island. I love the state so much. It truly feels like home to me. I would be lucky to get married on the beach in Rhode Island.

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She ended her set with a new routine — complete with a mock impassioned reference to creating a “nude clown opera” — that makes the case for following your own artistic vision, no matter how weird. It’s a philosophy she’s followed with great success in her own career by steadily building the sort of audience that found its way to two sold-out shows at the Brattle Theater and was now giving her a tumultuous standing ovation. Comedian Mike Birbiglia, famed for his indie film of his monologue Sleepwalk With Me, had tweeted following another recent performance: “Saw [Maria Bamford] tonight at Caroline’s. I’ve never seen a comedian who made me want to give 25 standing ovations in one set.” That captures some of the thrill of seeing a great comedian like Maria Bamford come into her own.

In some ways, she represents the polar opposite of some of the most dispiriting trends in mass-cult comedy, as embodied by the wildly successful Chelsea Handler. Handler has an influential TV show, best-selling books and fills arenas with comedy that is pedestrian, crude, obvious, unfunny and needlessly vulgar while being beloved by millions of fans — and being despised by smart comedians who don’t need to curry her favor. (Her fans believe that all her critics are just prigs who are jealous of her beauty, wealth and fame.) Some of that industry loathing can be found in an amusing best-of podcast edition of Hollywood Babylon, co-hosted by radio host Ralph Garman and director Kevin Smith — but even Kevin Smith had to go on her show to promote a new film. At one point, Garman, when not fuming with obscenities aimed at Handler, quotes comedian Daniel Tosh as saying, “Comedy is hard. If it were easy, Chelsea Handler would be doing it.”

Bamford has never attacked Handler and presumably travels in different circles in Los Angeles, but Bamford’s growing success is a sign that there is an indeed a potentially large market for intelligent, heartfelt and thoughtful comedy.

********************

There will be a potentially huge audience waiting for Erin Foley, once the rest of America catches up with those in women’s comedy circles who already treat her like a superstar. Foley was the featured comic who preceded Bamford, and she quickly established that she’s a first-tier comedian and actress who deserves to be seen more often in movies and on TV.

It’s not as if she’s had no major national exposure, of course: She has a 2009 Comedy Central special under her belt, had a guest slot on Curb Your Enthusiasm, appeared in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, released a comedy album in 2011, and headlined in TV Guide’s series Stand-Up in Stilettos and Comedy Central’s Mash-Up. She has long been cracking up crowds at New York’s most prestigious comedy clubs before heading to Los Angeles recently to seek wider renown in TV and films. After I just discovered her acting reel, including national TV commercials, it seems to me she shows more comic flair in 30-second commercials (see her Nature Made slot) and short films than anyone in Two Broke Girls has demonstrated in two seasons.

But I had never seen her videos or her stage show before last week, and so she was a revelation. She was simply magnetic striding on stage. A tall woman in a dark shirt and blue jeans, with cobalt blue eyes and long brown hair, she had a loose-limbed goofy charm drawn from her days as an improv actor that only supplemented her fiercely intelligent, well-observed comedy. Her hilarious opening routine was on depressing book stores featuring such books as Vegan Cooking for One, a bit that hit home with this educated audience in Cambridge. But when she turned to the absurdities of right-wing politics andPorltlandia-syle cultural and political correctness, she was entering new territory that most other left-wing comics can’t match. That’s because of her comedic acting skills, and the routines she writes that keep building more laughs with each added detail along with their ramped-up intensity. She ended her set by lampooning the irrelevance of the Bible to the debate on gay marriage by reading aloud, as if she were a Congressman in a debate, from a scene from the Harry Potter series. It showed an Andy Kaufman-like sense of absurdity blended with political awareness, and it killed. She got a rousing standing ovation, and left this comedy fan wanting to see more of Erin Foley. Special note to the popular Stephanie Miller Sexy Liberal Show: add Foley in some guest opening segments.

As these video clips from an appearance at the Gotham Comedy Club show, you don’t have to be a lesbian to love Erin Foley.
Her recent Conan appearance, below, gives a brief sense of what she can do but downplays her biting political humor. But it’s striking that despite a Comedy Central special in 2009, rave reviews wherever she appears and a great album in 2011, it took until last year for her to land a major network late-night comedy slot. She doesn’t need any special pleading from me, but it’s seems likely that her reputation as a “lesbian comic” who hosts shows such as the Gays R Us improv show in Los Angeles and plays lesbian cruises — even though it’s been years since Ellen came out of the closet — seems to have somewhat limited her earlier opportunities in major TV shows and movies. Maybe it’s because some of her material openly addresses the fact that she has a girlfriend. So what? But with the universal appeal of her humor and the rapid changes in the culture at large — seen the latest polls on 81 percent support for gay marriage among young people? — there’s little doubt that we will in fact be seeing far more of Erin Foley:

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