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LA Weekly reviews God Hates Figs: "Emily Maya Mills Could Be the Next Carol Burnett"

Mar 27, 2015

"By any chance, are there a couple of boxes out there on stage?"

Such was comedienne Emily Maya Mills's query to a fellow performer in the dressing room at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Mills needed a nook or two to stash a slew of props -- in the Lady Gaga number range -- for her 35-minute show God Hates Figs.

"There are minimal costume changes. I wear no shoes in the show, but everything else is the craziest prop situation I've ever handled," explained Mills about her 60th show at UCB -- her second one-woman -- directed by fellow UCB vet Julie Brister. "This is going to look like a living cartoon."

Though we live in a city that's a comedy bellwether, in particular the alternative comedy queen scene -- which over the last decade or so has been punctuated by such greats as Beth Lapides, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Maria Bamford, Natasha Leggero, to name a few -- we can lose track of what's new. Let's add Mills to that group of next-gen femmes helping to obliterate the women-aren't-funny cliche -- which, incidentally, is part of her act.

I arrived Tuesday night expecting to be treated to her stand-up (see it check it out here), which she flexes around town at such rooms as What's Up Tiger Lily, R-Bar and The Virgil. To label Mills' material as strictly being related to current affairs is an understatement, because it's so much more, often underscoring or prognosticating the outrageousness of a situation (see her take on over-aggressive Los Angeles Times customer sales reps, or her extrapolation on the woman CEO of the extramarital affair site Ashley Madison). Accentuating this is Mills' easygoing cadence reminiscent of Teri Garr and fetching looks that arguably could get her mistaken as Carey Mulligan's sister. For Mills, the comedians she admires are Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner and contemporaries like Bamford.

In God Hates Figs, Mills displayed a melange of female characters evolving through time. But this wasn't merely a wig-swapping stock character revue, despite Mills' penchant for continually creating a zany dramatis personae. (Check out her promiscuous period lady opposite Thomas Lennon in Invention of the Zipper from her sketch group Birds of Prey.) "They're fragments of real people, for sure," asserted Mills about their grounding. Not to mention, she had some heavy philosophical issues on her mind -- in the Terrence Malick Tree of Life sense.

"I'm in a constant state of existential crisis, trying to figure out why we belong here and how people react and treat each other. I'm constantly searching through philosophy and physics," said Mills backstage, dabbing base on her face.

The show's title is a riff on the satirical protest slogan generated against the Westboro Baptist Church's anti-gay chant. "If you take the Venn diagram of the show and all the characters of the show, the show's title is in there," she said. "'God Hates Figs' was a joke that came up between my neighbor and I as we lived across from a Lassens. They gave a bunch of money to Prop 8 and they have these zany names for their food like 'The divine bovine turkey jerky.' We started joking that they're selling 'Hate hummus' and 'Hate wraps.'"

As the lights rose on God Hates Figs, "Carmina Burana" swelled and we found ourselves at a museum for humanity, overlooking the female exhibits. As Mills has done in some stand-up bits, she hits her laughs via an old vaudeville technique -- using sounds instead of spoken-word dialogue. Here, she is a grunting cave woman, displaying that women were even bulimic for the sake of their figure back in the stone age.

Then there was Heather Littlefeather, a Massachusetts-accented, iron-fisted woman of Irish descent clad in Native American garb who recently learned that her real father was from the Piqua nation. "Now I know why I get in trouble for smacking cops. The white man is my mortal enemy," blared Littlefeather, who's filled ironies, such as she's allergic to corn and "that Iron Maiden is my spiritual band. I should be pissed at them for whatever they did to my people."

Backstage, Mills told me that she drew her inspiration for Littlefeather from a personality she spotted in a documentary. "Initially, I had a hard time identifying with her, but there was just something so visually juxtaposing in terms of who she was and how she sounded."

In the section of the show on creationism, Mills as Eve taunted God, in order to prove that women are funny, despite his grumpy bias that they're not. "You laugh at all of Adam's 'Check out my serpent jokes,' and frankly that dick-in-a-snake bit is really hack," blasted Eve.

Then, in a costume change as avant-garde as one out of a Madonna concert, Mills, clad in her Eve skin-color leotard, began dancing to Kendrick Lamar's "Blow My High" as words scrolled across the screen, poking fun at her slinky persona and suggesting to the audience that they call her Carol. The words "Now I'm reverse stripping to reverse your thinking about what stripping is" flashed, as Mills donned the get-up of a new-age self-help guru whose life isn't exactly together.

The guru encouraged everyone to love -- love so much that it's OK to get married four times. "You can get a brand new credit card every time your name changes!" she exclaimed. But the one universal truth that truly made the crowd roar: "If you leap, the net will appear. But if you jump off the roof of an abandoned church while on piote, it will hurt," warned Mills' alter-ego.

God Hates Figs hit its pinnacle toward the end when Mills as a sour matronly centaur interrupted a gay marriage with her objections and cried a number contradictions. "I want to demand to see Obama's birth certificate! Never mind that I can't provide my own because I was born in a field in another dimension."

Much like Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, there's a plethora of underlying self-reflecting themes to take away from God Hates Figs. The show is bound to be mounted at UCB again in the near future. In the meantime, catch Mills' sets on March 28 at Virgil (7:30 p.m.) and Cinefile (9 p.m.). Follow her on Twitter: @emilymayamills.

LA Shows

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Occidental Weekly recommends ASSSSCAT, Harold Night

Mar 27, 2015

Los Angeles alternative comedy scene brings the laughs 

Many think improv died in the '90s and stand-up comedy takes place exclusively in comedy clubs that have minimum drink requirements on top of ridiculous ticket fees. Well, maybe short-form improv died in the '90s, but some of the best comedy shows now don't happen in traditional comedy clubs and range from free to only ten dollars. Welcome to the world of alternative comedy. Luckily, Los Angeles has one of the best alternative comedy scenes in the world. As is the case with most things alternative, getting into the scene needs a bit of know-with-all. Looking at a schedule and knowing where to go can be daunting. Here is a list of comedy events happening in L.A., spanning those geared towards beginners and those for more expert-level comedy fans.

To Begin/ For the Comedy Novice:

The following shows are ideal for those who watch a lot of comedy but have never been to a live show before. These shows are listed as 'beginner' because they showcase the best comedy L.A. has to offer in an easier-to-digest format.

ASSSSCAT: The staple show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (UCB), ASSSSCAT, has been running for over 10 years, and it features a crowd of improvisers and a guest monologist. The monologist takes a random word from the audience then gives an on-the-spot monologue related to the suggestion. The improvisers then take over and do a long-form improvised set based on the story told. Hilarity ultimately unfolds.

This improv format is unique to ASSSSCAT and never disappoints. ASSSSCAT almost always includes master improviser Matt Besser, one of the original founders of UCB (along with Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler, who also occasionally appear in the show). Guest monologists and improvisers are often familiar faces from comedy, especially NBC sitcoms, as UCB has been a talent feeder for NBC over the past few years (to name a few, alum include Bobby Moynihan of SNL, Donald Glover of Community and of course Amy Poehler).

There are two ASSSSCAT performances a week, one on Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($10) and the other, which is free, every Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Typically the ticketed show is more contained while the free show attracts more colorful characters and displays more ridiculous performances.

The Super Serious Show

Intermediate:

Although still a necessary fixture in the L.A. alt-comedy scene, these shows have more specific niche followings of their own. They may be a bit less accessible than the shows above but are fantastic for comedy fans who have been to a few shows and know the difference between, say, sketch and improv.

Harold Night: The 'Harold' is a 30 minute form of improv created by legendary improv teacher Del Close. Harolds are usually much brainier and more interesting sets than short form improv games characteristic of shows like Whose Line is it Anyway. The long-form structure allows time for stories to go full circle and really engage the audience. Each Harold night features about six up and coming long-form improv groups, which often have (as with many things UCB) cultish followings of their own. The typical Harold Night audience is a bit more well-versed in improv comedy, which is why this show is recommended for people to go to once they get a feel for UCB-style improv at ASSSSCAT.

Harold night at UCB is Monday nights at 8:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and each show features two improv groups. The show usually sells out a week ahead of time, so go online to purchase tickets.

The Meltdown Show with Jonah and Kumail

Expert:

After having stalked the UCB calendar and in need of a change of pace from the more well-known shows in the LA Alt-Comedy scene, here are some nice alternatives to the alternative.

Crashbar Improv

Holy F*ck FREE Comedy

LA Shows

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The Gainesville Sun interviews Jessica Chaffin & Jamie Denbo

Mar 27, 2015

Who are Jamie Denbo and Jessica Chaffin?

Are they the comedy duo who write and direct the Showtime mockumentary Ronna & Beverly? Seasoned Upright Citizens Brigade improvisers? Actresses whose film credits include roles in Weeds and Entourage and whose contact list boasts friends like Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig?

Or raunchy loudmouths in the The Heat, an upcoming summer comedy that they appear in alongside Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy?

Slouched over a second-floor booth at The Swamp restaurant on Thursday afternoon, Denbo and Chaffin let me decide.

"So," Denbo says, resting her chin in her hand and sliding her elbow across the table. "You want us to be us ..."

"...or them?" Chaffin finishes.

There's a light breeze filtering through the West University Avenue sports bar, and car horns and student chatter fill the air. Beside Chaffin is a sweaty glass of green mojito leaves.

"Them" is their characters from "The Heat": primped up, critical family members.

They've even dressed the part: Denbo wears neon blue eye shadow and speaks in a guttural, Boston accent. Chaffin wears a studded blue-jean jacket and a green undershirt that hangs off her shoulders. Her hair is twisted like curly fries.

As part of their promotion for The Heat, the actresses spent the last two days in Gainesville, first at an early, special-premiere screening at Gators Dockside on Wednesday evening, then at a series of interviews on Thursday.

After more than a decade in show business, they're masters at playing roles -- and sometimes, it's difficult to tell who's who.

"Well, what's it going to be?" Denbo growls. "Us, or them?"

She stares with the intensity of a wild animal, and you can see the objective of her comedy: to burst your comfort zone, then draw you in with a warm smile after retreating from her initial gruffness.

Eventually, we agree to disagree. I say they can answer any question however they want. They say I can specify which responses I want characters for. We proceed, undecided but tilting freely on the keel of comedy.

For Denbo and Chaffin, the merry-go-round trip through the entertainment business began with watching Saturday Night Live.

"It was the place to find sketch comedy," Chaffin said.

"And we grew up in the '80s and '90s," Denbo added, "so it was the model for comedians our age."

Although they launched their careers differently -- Denbo performed improv with a circuit of performers at renaissance fairs and Disney before landing with the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, and Chaffin never acted in a production until she journeyed out west and signed up for classes at the same UCB Theatre -- they both value the creativity that improv still inspires in their lives.

"I got an incredible amount of experience in places you don't think of as career moves," Denbo said, and she continually recalls it for any situation: scriptwriting, reacting properly as an actor, setting up a premise.

"I still use improv in 90 percent of my jobs today," she said.

Chaffin agreed and said that the spontaneous creations that rise out of improv are often the building blocks of great ideas.

"Improv can be the foundation for another career," she said. "We find, increasingly, that there are those other opportunities where you can use it."

"Now, the nice thing is, there are so many places you can end up," Chaffin continued. "The girl who wrote 'The Heat' is a younger UCB comrade of ours. Improv helps all of those things. At the end of the day, whether it's scriptwriting or acting, it really keeps you sharp."

LA General

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