Melinda Hill is bringing the fun back to funny, the smart back to “smarty pants,” and the “hyphen” back to hyphenate, because she genuinely wears the various hats hyphenates like to claim and very rarely deserve to wear. I watched her work in every form from stand-up on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, The Bonnie Hunt Show, BBC’s World Stands Up, NESN’s Comedy All Stars, Comics Unleashed, and most recently when she hosted Byron Allen’s series Comedy. Then there’s her sketch work and guest appearances on Reno 911 (which I innocently thought was reality TV), The Sarah Silverman Program, Frank TV, The Winner, Chris Kattan’s Bollywood Hero and as a regular commentator on Smoking Gun Presents. With all this, my curiosity was piqued and my funny-bone tickled. What could she possibly be like off stage? A lot of people that are funny on stage have, shall we call them, “personality disorders” offstage, so I just had to meet her in person. And we met.
As we started to chat about work and comedy, it was then that I learned the incongruous truth: she had been trained as a dramatic actress — not just dramatic like the drama of the succinct and pithy lines of a policewomen on a television show — a movie-of-the-week, long-suffering single young woman raising a crack baby that was left in the back of her SUV — but drama like Chekov and Ibsen that forces you as an actress to take that “Stanislavskian railroad trip back through your mind” in order to be able to reveal your character’s innermost thoughts and spill her puny guts in a way that will engage the audience with some feelings of recognition. No wonder stand-up comedy was a natural segue. Since then, she’s been making people laugh on purpose. Chekov can be funny when looked at through the wrong end of the telescope. Ask Woody Allen. In his case, make that a stethoscope, knowing his penchant for hypochondria.
During the next couple of hours, we chatted about everything and laughed about everything. Melinda, unlike most of the comediennes nowadays, takes a look at human nature with a humane and humorous point of view. Her comedic sensibilities aren’t about getting dumped by some nitwit, which is pathetic in itself, or unsuccessfully getting plumped up by some cut-rate plastic surgeon from some made-up country which, again, is pathetic enough in itself. Her humor is not about being screwed, tattooed and thrown out in the snow to die. Her humor chronicles our times with intelligent, witty, gently self-deprecating humor that gently pokes fun at everyday foibles, and at herself.
I had to ask her where her material comes from, and she casually replied, “Oh, the regular stuff. Always getting crying parts in acting class…and doing them, having a bad time at Customs, near-death experiences…” Near death experiences? I decided to start with the crying stuff. I’ve never been able to understand how someone can cry on cue.
Melissa Berry: Okay, Melinda, tell me about crying-on-cue to comedy.
Melinda Hill: When I was studying acting, I was always getting parts that required me to cry all day, and at night, I was in a production of Chekov’s Three Sisters and had to cry some more. I cried all day and I cried all night. Then an acting teacher told me that I should pursue comedy because I was “accidentally funny.” I didn’t know whether I’d been insulted or not, but I thought it sounded more fun than all the crying I’d been doing while playing a litany of lost souls ranging from junkies in indie films to “Crying Motel Room Girl” in a Creed video. Ironically, once I started doing stand-up, I was cast as “Crying Biker Chick” on Reno 911.
MB: You said that going through Customs was funny. Customs? Customs agents?
MH: I know. It just happens. Last year, I went to London to do stand-up on a TV show called The World Stands Up. I was really excited; I’d never been to Europe. When you get to customs, you have to fill out the card that says if you’re there for work or vacation, so I marked “work.” The guy at Customs asked, “What’s your profession then?” I said, “I’m a comedian.” He goes, “That’s a horrible profession, isn’t it?” and I said, “No, it’s a great profession. It’s what’s bringing me to London!” Then he goes, “What about when you’re standing there and everyone hates you and they hate your jokes?” I said, “Well, hey — it’s no crushing people’s dreams at the border.”
At this point, I was perfectly happy to sit there and let her tell me stories all afternoon. It was all so natural. Nothing forced. No big set-ups. Just funny stories told with a very conversational delivery and an unexpected punchline that was the perfect punch to a charming story. Even a story about a near-death experience. I guess it was one of those experiences when “you had to have been there” in order to make jokes.
MB: It seems like funny stuff just happens around you.
MH: It’s usually the reaction of someone around me that brings out the humor of an otherwise not-so-funny experience. The humor in a near-death experience was totally unexpected…not unlike the near-death experience.
MB: Well, obviously you lived through it! How? And where on earth did you find the humor?
MH: Maybe it was because I had been on a month-long tour performing for troops in Guam, Singapore, Hawaii, Japan, and Marshall Islands. Our plane had a malfunction and plummeted 30,000 feet over the Indian Ocean! The oxygen masks dropped and the crew was running around yelling things such as but not limited to: “We’re going down!” Miraculously, they somehow fixed the plane and turned it around. Later, I was back in LA telling this story to a group of people and one girl said, “Yeah, 30,000 feet’s really not that far.” Gee, I didn’t know prior to that that a near-death experience could be inadequate.
You too can hear Melinda tell her “stories” every Monday when she hosts her live shows, What’s Up Tiger Lily (with co-creator Maria Bamford) and The Melinda Hill Show, every Monday night at the Studio Bar and Grill in the Gower Gulch at 6122 Sunset Boulevard. These evenings have been praised in The LA Times and spawned her first record, Live from Comedy Central Stage. You’ll have to go to her website to keep up with her other appearances. She’s always working somewhere! And as her mother said to her when she called to tell her about yet another job she’d gotten, “That’s nice dear. And let’s just hope that all your hard work pays off!”
Looks to me like it has…in spades!