Betsy Salkind is a comedian, writer, and actress whose fearless advocacy for women and children helped pave the way for the #MeToo Movement. Raised in Connecticut and Virginia, she moved to the Boston area to study at MIT, earning a BS and a Master’s degree from the Sloan School of Management. Her Master’s thesis was entitled “Can’t You Take A Joke? A Study of Sexual Harassment Among Peers” and she later left her career at the Federal Reserve Bank to pursue comedy. Her piece “The Emperor’s Getting Fucked,” in which she called out the misogyny, racism, and vicious culture of comedy clubs, resulted in a ban from Boston venues. After being part of the performance art world for some years, she reemerged to perform stand up and appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Showtime’s Fierce Funny Women. She wrote for Roseanne’s comedy-variety program Saturday Night Special and the iconic self-titled sitcom. She also lobbied and organized for the National Association to Protect Children and was instrumental in changing California law to offer equal protection to children sexually abused by family members. Betsy graciously answered our questions about Boston’s stand up scene, the Roseanne writer’s room, and pre-show relaxation techniques.
WICF Daily: This is really two related questions in one: How would you characterize the Boston stand up scene when you started performing? What prompted you to write and perform “The Emperor’s Getting Fucked”?
Betsy Salkind: I started out doing comedy in Boston around 1986 and continued until 1993 when I left for New York, though after 1989 and the “Emperor” piece, I was pretty much out of the clubs (doing one woman shows, a brief series on WGBH, teaching, etc.). I had started out doing improv and in 1988 joined Guilty Children. I loved improv (still do), but it’s not something you can do by yourself, and I had started doing stand up when I was between groups. I continued to do both during my time in Boston. I loved the group nature of improv, but stand up gave me the opportunity to voice my more extreme views (more radically feminist) that the improv/sketch group didn’t want to do.
This was before cable TV (and the Internet of course) and live comedy was still on the rise. People went to clubs. Comedy was taking over from music in large part because it was cheaper and easier to produce. There were about a half dozen clubs and some other venues not dedicated to comedy (gay bars, cabaret, theaters, prisons, restaurants, etc). Ironically, I was earning an (albeit paltry) living as a performer then – gigs actually paid – and I supplemented with teaching improv (at MIT and Emerson).
There were some women comics, but not as many as I believe there are now – some I remember: Sue McGinnis, Julie Barr, Lauren Dombrowski, Wendy Liebman, Janine DiTulio, Janeane Garofalo. Helene Lantry, Dorothy Dwyer, Susie Macksey. I know there were many more, and I truly apologize for not having a full list. There were certainly a lot more women comics than were getting paid spots as there seemed to be a rule that only one woman could work a show and be paid at a time. The phrase “We already have a woman,” or “We had a woman once and she wasn’t very good, so…” was not uncommon. A few women comics from the Boston scene ‘made it’ — Wendy Liebman, Paula Poundstone, Jeanine Garofalo, Laura Kightlinger — but they all had to go to another city first (LA, SF, Houston, NY) There were a LOT of men. Mostly white, mostly Irish or Italian. Almost everyone was straight – at least on stage. I never talked about boyfriends or relationships on stage (primarily because it just wasn’t that interesting or funny to me), so it was assumed I was a lesbian, and I was totally fine with that. I took it as a compliment – and I believe it probably afforded me a certain amount of not being pursued sexually. Also, I really wanted to be one and was a closeted heterosexual at the time.
I was often the only woman on a comedy show, or one of very few, and all the men did material that was deeply misogynistic, and I hated having to follow that and present myself to an audience that had laughed at that. I also hated myself for staying silent when I knew in any other context I would be speaking up if not actually protesting what they were saying/doing. One night I had hit my limit.
After another horrible gig, I met up with some fellow comics — I believe it was Sue McGinnis, Dot Dwyer, and Helene Lantry — for a drink at Club Cabaret. [The four of us formed a group called Terrorist Bridesmaids and I produced our shows at Club Cabaret, which was mostly a fantastic experience, except when we got bumped by female impersonators – which inspired some later performances at the ICA in their “Fear and Clothing” show, in which Deb Doetzer and I performed as Sigfried and Roy with her obese cats as the tigers, and I lipsynched to a Freddie Prinze album as fruit fell out of my pants and my facial hair fell off.]
I told them that I was done and would not work in the clubs ever again. I had a tumbler of scotch and decided I wanted to do one final performance where I said all the things I really wanted to say but never dared. The next day I awoke sober and still wanted to do it. I owe a huge debt to Sue McGinnis, who was the the one woman in Boston who they allowed to work for pay at the time (and who beat Marc Maron in the comedy competition we were all in); she directed the piece in secret (she gave me permission to share this now – it would have cost her her career then) and I performed it at the Comedy Connection. I never thought they’d let me get through the whole thing. The line up that night was 5 comics, all men except me. The first three went up and did everything I talked about in my piece, and then the host introduced me as “This next guy isn’t a guy at all…” There were laughs at first and then silence through much of it, and some applause at the end. The headliner man was from out of town and was appreciative — though it couldn’t have been easy to follow — and I was immediately banned from every club in town except Catch A Rising Star (which never booked me for pay anyway). The improv troupe that I was in at the time, Guilty Children, was also banned because of my association (and they weren’t happy about it at the time, but now admire what I did – they remain among my best friends).
Word got around town and I decided to do it one more time at an unpaid showcase at Catch. Many comics came to see it including Marc Maron, who is the one comic I called out by name because he had called me out by name in an ugly way in a previous show (can’t remember the exact line, but something to the effect of “I’d make Salkind come so hard she’d shit the bed.”) You can hear him respond to me. Barry Crimmins, a well-respected political comic even then, whom I’d never met, heard about it and called me and offered me stage time — but I declined, not feeling ready — but I so appreciated him calling me. I still do.
After the Catch show, I started working in alternate venues in Boston: performance art spaces, gay clubs, theaters, and going to NY to work in similar venues. This performance was the scariest thing I’d done, but also the most tightly written and rehearsed and made me feel like an actual artist. I started writing one woman shows and other material beyond club jokes. In 1993 I left Boston for NY and started working in clubs again. By 1995 I was in LA and a year later was writing for Roseanne.
WICF: Post-“Emperor’s”, what drew you to the world of performance art?
Betsy: I turned to the world of performance art mostly because it was another set of venues: it was a place that had more women, where there were other artists interested in what I had to say. I also had a lot more freedom with form in those venues. I had done some shows with Deb Margolin, Split Britches, and Reno, and they told me about venues in NY such as PS 122 and La Mama, and locally there was Mobius and I got connected with the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. The other thing I loved about these other worlds were the audiences, who were more transgressive. The comedy clubs were very mainstream – very status quo, while the art world was not.
WICF: What was the Roseanne writer’s room like when you worked on the show? It’s so legendary, definitely part of the television canon.
Betsy: Working for Roseanne was life-changing for me. Roseanne herself offered me the job (first for the variety show Saturday Night Special, and then for the sitcom). It was incredibly validating and confidence building to be paid to write, to join the Writer’s Guild, and to learn that I had a bottomless well of ideas that could be produced on demand.
The writing staff was half women when I was there, which was (and likely still is) highly unusual. The job involved eating a lot of candy and writing a lot of jokes. It was chaotic and crazy and fun. As my first sitcom job, I had nothing to compare it to, but I understand from others that it was different from many other staffs. For example, because we always on a very short time frame, we wrote nearly all scripts as a group (what was called a gang bang – and yes, I still cringe at that term). Story and writing credits were somewhat random and determined by contract. Much of my time on the show was spent in a “joke room,” where 3 or four of us would come up with many joke alternatives for punchlines – and then we would go pitch it to the big room with the showrunner and producers. We wrote all week (and often weekend), and on Fridays would attend the taping, where we would sometimes have to write a fix mid-shoot. It was always an exciting event, and it was a real thrill to hear my words come out of someone else’s mouth – especially a great actor/actress.
It also allowed me to pay off the credit card scheme that I’d used to finance my life as a comic before that. I gained some needed weight there – Roseanne said “that’s cause you can afford to eat now,” but really it was because they fed us (very well and often – they had chefs, I think to keep us on the premises). Carrie Snow said we were like veal. I remember my first day, writer-producer Cynthia Mort walked in and her first words were “Hi, fuckers.” I loved her instantly. Having worked solo so long as a stand up, I loved working with the team (okay, most of the team – there was a bit of internal warfare, which was NOT unique to Roseanne – e.g, halfway through the year the showrunner got fired and the new showrunner wanted to fire a bunch of us staff writers ((the least protected as our contracts were not for the whole season)) so he could hire his friends).
Through my experience on both of those shows, I learned to trust the National Enquirer when it comes to celebrity stories (not so much with the space alien stuff). So I knew before many that they were telling the truth about John Edwards.
WICF: What advice would you give to women pursuing comedy professionally?
Betsy: The first bit of advice I give to anyone in the arts is to separate the value of what you do from what you get paid. Rewards in the arts can be random – get what you can, but see the value in all you do. Those of us who are not straight white men can expect to be underpaid. Do not judge yourself by that.
Make sure you’re having fun (at least much of the time).
Keep writing, keep making work. If you don’t like your act or are bored with it, change it. I try to do at least one new bit each show. Know it takes time to develop as a comic. Take risks, make mistakes, keep going. When you’re on stage, focus on those in the audience who get you and are enjoying themselves. Someone said “Be yourself until you’re what they love.” Or as Thelonius Monk said, “The genius is the one who plays most like himself.”
No one booker/gig will make or break your career.
You are someone’s hero – even if you don’t know it. Your voice matters, your very presence on stage matters. You may never know the importance or the impact of you or your work. Listen to the positive feedback. Take it in. Save the positive bits to reread.
Listen to critical feedback, but only hold onto what is useful to you – throw the rest away. You will hear a lot of things that have much more to do with the person saying those things.
Always watch all performers on the show before you – you need to know what your audience has seen and heard – to them, you are part of one show. You need to know what’s been covered, what’s working, what is going on in the room.
Later in my career I developed a pre-show ritual that helped me perform more consistently and gave me the focus and energy to do my best no matter the audience. Mine includes relaxation/meditation and gratitude to put myself in a calm, resourceful, and energized state to perform. It takes about 5 minutes. Create your own ritual.
Support others – we truly are a community. We are alone on stage in stand up, but we share an unusual life as comics, and perhaps even more so as women comics. Your fellow comics know that life. Most of your jobs will come from other comics. All of the big breaks I had came from other comics – because comics trust their own sense of what is funny – unlike some in the “industry” who are more worried about what others think, or who is “hot” at the time. Also, it can be so much fun creating with others.
Read.Laugh.Take care of yourself.
WICF: How can people stay informed about your work / where can they find you online?
Betsy: I’m on Facebook, Twitter @BetsySalkind and at betsysalkind.com