NERVOUS AND EXTEMPORANEOUS

NERVOUS AND EXTEMPORANEOUS

 
Julie Larson’s Comedy Journey
photograph of Julie Larson, center, speaking with two actors seated at desks on a TV set; crew in the background
Julie Larson with actors Octavia Spencer and David Eigenberg on the set of her first pilot, “Washington Street.” Photograph by Byron Cohen.

When I texted Julie Larson asking for her permission to be interviewed as the funniest person I know, she asked if I was kidding before sending me a photo of her four-year-old corgi, Walter, saying, “Walter is the funniest person I know.” And when I asked if I could get an interview with Walter she replied, “Only if you want to end up being his BITCH!  He has a taste for the Italian/Irish mix [Larson tipping her hat to my heritage]. Finds them both scrappy and, like him, willing to beg for a hamburger.”1

I’ve known Julie Larson for about as long as I can remember, she’s been one of my mom’s best friends since they started working on ABC sitcom Dharma & Greg together in 1997. One of my favorite memories of Larson was when she chronicled her visits to her local vape store to me, “I go in and [the employees] are like ‘hey, Julie!’ and I’m always telling them, “listen, you either call me J-Bag or you call me Miss Larson . . . Nothing else.”

For the whole of my nineteen years, every day I’ve wished to be half as funny as she is, and my FaceTime call with her on April 16, 2018, did nothing but affirm this.

Before Larson got her first job, she spent seventeen years as a performer doing whatever gigs she could to be on stage. In those seventeen years, all of the gigs she did were unpaid, and she worked as a legal secretary to support herself and her daughter, Joan.

“It was a great gift in a way because by the time I broke through in my career, I was kind of good in the idea that I was a prop comic who had to work during the day as a legal secretary and a mom . . . and that’s a person. By the time I broke through, it would’ve been okay if I didn’t,” she said.

Larson has such a positive outlook on life that it sometimes astounds me, but it’s so clear that her love of comedy is the reason for her positive outlook on life. When she was struggling to make money to afford to raise Joan she still stuck with performing for free because making other people laugh is what makes her happy.

This desire to entertain people started when Larson was in high school in Geneva, Illinois, “I loved drama, but it was really that I loved performing, and I loved costumes. I was in Drama Club in high school. I loved dramatic plays, but [after graduating high school] I moved to Chicago and started taking classes at different places, and I was really good at the Second City-style comedy [comedy based in sketch and improvisation], so I kept going in that direction.”

She took classes and performed with side companies in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, “I moved to L.A. in—oh God, now I’m dating myself—1984, so I was twenty-three-years-old. When I came out here I gave all that up, that was all on the periphery. I moved here, and I started auditioning to be in the Comedy Store Players, I took classes at Groundlings, and then I worked. I worked as a bartender, cocktail waitress, and then a legal secretary.”

Larson gave birth to Joan prior to her move to Los Angeles. To pursue Larson’s comedy dream, they relocated from Chicago to a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Larson and Joan lived in that apartment through most of Joan’s adolescence, and in those years they both put aside their more comfortable lives in Chicago in favor of Larson’s dream of comedic success.

“I had my car repossessed with Joan’s bear in the back and they wouldn’t give me the bear back—I had gotten my electricity turned off three months before I got Dharma & Greg. I’ve had numerous things happen to me because I could really never work more than thirty hours a week, so I was always really broke. When I got my electricity turned off I made the best of it with my kid—we played like I was Lewis and Clark and she was Sacajawea . . . this sounds insane,” she trailed off. “Some people end up in other careers because they kind of like it and they’re really good at it, so they can make $130,000 a year as a high-end legal secretary. I mean, I was really good at my job, but I was kind of distracted because I hated being there.”

At that point, it seemed to Larson that her comedy career was going nowhere fast, but as long as she was able to work during the day and perform at night, she was going to do it.

“The thing that most helped me is I was gonna [perform] no matter what. I loved it. Right before my career broke, I found this bag of wigs and jackets—so pathetic, right?—and I thought about a time after I would be dead and my daughter would find this bag and she’d say, ‘oh yeah, my mom was a prop comic,’ and I thought, Maybe I’m just gonna be a legal secretary who just keeps trying to get on stage, and I was like, That’s okay, I’m a comic whether I’m successful or not.”

Then, in 1997, Larson landed a writing job on the first season of the ABC sitcom Dharma & Greg, created by Chuck Lorre and Dottie Dartland-Zicklin.

“Dottie Zicklin hired me out of the blue when I was doing a comedy festival in Ireland. She and Chuck Lorre hired me with no experience, just with my [performing] experience, because she saw me and I was funny. But I had no experience, so I was like a wild horse,” she said.

Dharma & Greg centered on a polar-opposite couple who’d gotten married on their first date. The show ran for five seasons, three of which included Larson on the writing staff. The transition from performer to writer was a quick and jarring one for Julie, but she still described it as glorious.

“When I got to Dharma & Greg I was like a beagle because I wanted to succeed so bad, and I think I annoyed [Chuck Lorre],” said Larson. “When I got in the writer’s room, I was really nervous. I talked a lot, and my contract was for ten weeks and they weren’t gonna keep me and I knew it because Dottie kind of let me know. So there’s a whole bunch of the season that you write ahead of time before you go on stage and film it. So we got to the filming part and I just thought, I’m gonna go through this script, and I’m going to come up with alternate jokes for every joke in the script.”

Since Dharma & Greg was shot in front of a live audience, Larson knew that the audience reaction shaped the jokes that would eventually make it into the script or episode. She spent her off time before shoot reading through scripts and restructuring the comedic bits. If the bits didn’t play well in front of the live audience, Larson was given the opportunity to show her comedic prowess to Lorre, which would hopefully preserve her spot in the writer’s room.

“It was really time consuming, and nobody wanted me to talk in the writer’s room, but I couldn’t stop. Like Chuck Lorre said once, ‘You need to hold back!’ and I was like, ‘I am holding back!’, and I was scared to death of Chuck Lorre because he had my life in his hands.”

Julie’s eyes flickered quickly to her dog in the corner, barking and eating her socks. She stopped to yell, “Walter, shut the fuck up” before continuing.

“Anyways, the first night that we filmed, I fixed four jokes. And that’s a big deal. And the jokes that I fixed, I had great jokes for because I already knew how to write jokes since I spent seventeen years doing it. And when I left that night, Chuck Lorre said, ‘you had a really good night tonight’ and I said, ‘I felt like I did.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t think you know how good,’ and then on Monday Dottie told me they were picking up my contract. I was there for another three years before I moved to The Drew Carey Show,” she continued.

Larson only remembers one of the jokes she fixed, which was a scene ender: Dharma was in line at the grocery store behind a heavy-set man buying excess amounts of bacon and originally, the joke was Dharma saying, “Bacon? Do you even love yourself?” and the scene ended, but when they taped the joke didn’t get a laugh. Larson stepped in and added a response from the man, “No, but I love bacon.”

“That got a huge laugh, and when you end a scene in a sitcom you need to end on a big laugh. I also got my first smile from Chuck Lorre after that joke.”

Larson credits my mom, Regina Stewart, who was an executive producer of Dharma & Greg, with most of her success on the show as well as in her future comedic endeavors. One of Larson’s favorite lines Stewart wrote for the show was a line where Dharma says, in reference to her breasts, “Greg calls these Lyle and Eric . . . cause they’re a couple of killers.”

“What I did [in the writer’s room] was I sat next to Regina Stewart, who was a producer, and I would tell her my pitches, and she would pitch them for me. Then, if they went in, she would say I did them, and if they didn’t, she wouldn’t say my name. I got a lot of credit because of her warm ability, she was one of those people who didn’t like anything snotty . . . she didn’t like networking either. But she was really amazing for me,” she said.

It’s not common for people to stick their neck out for others in the writer’s room, but my mom saw something in Larson (which is probably why they’ve remained close friends for over twenty years). Of their early friendship, my mom said, “Dharma & Greg was the second show I worked on as a writer, and the first show I worked on as a producer. I had just come off of my first writing job on Family Matters when Chuck offered me the position on Dharma & Greg. Julie was funny—really funny—but she didn’t really understand her way around the room, and I was like that too when I started at Family Matters . . . it’s a wonder they even kept me around. But it would’ve killed me to see Julie fired because I really thought she deserved to be there, so I gave her the help she needed to just kind of get her footing.”

Larson also credits Lorre and Zicklin for teaching her the art of crafting a story. She says the writers and producers of Dharma & Greg spent a large amount of time to create great, intricate stories, and “the jokes were like Christmas tree ornaments.”

The Drew Carey Show was a very different learning experience for Larson. Where Dharma & Greg was more story school, The Drew Carey Show was more joke school.

“In Second City you just do a joke and it’s done. On The Drew Carey Show they would polish a joke for two hours. A lot of the Harvard guys like Dan O’Keefe and Clay Graham and all of them were very well-educated joke-smiths. That six years of my life was like really well-paid college.”

Since her work on Dharma & Greg and The Drew Carey Show, Julie has worked on various projects including Four Kings, Last Man Standing, and Mom. In 2012 Julie co-created Are You There, Chelsea?, an adaptation of Chelsea Handler’s book Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea which ran for one season.

“You know, [shows] just turn out the way they turn out,” she said. “I’ve sold twelve pilots: I sold twelve, made two, and gotten one on air. But a lot of times, a show will be on for thirteen episodes, and then it’s not on again.”

Larson’s first pilot was called “Washington Street,” and was based on her life before her career broke. When I asked her about it, she shot into the most passionate description of something I’ve ever heard from her—or anyone.

A group photo of ten cast members posed on set
The cast of “Washington Street.” Photograph by Byron Cohen.

“It was a single mother who was a legal secretary with her daughter living in an apartment building, and right upstairs was kind of a—I don’t wanna say a whore-y girl—but a girl that went out a lot, she had a lot of guys over, which my neighbor Dot was, but she was really good at helping with my kid. And then a guy moves in next door who—not in real life—could have been a love interest who’s a college professor. My vision is kind of like in a lot of shows people have a lot of money, even if they’re not supposed to, they have beautiful places and everything, and to show that sometimes people have a really good life without all that stuff . . . corny, whatever.”

The pilot was made for CBS through Warner Brothers; it was filmed but never produced. Larson still talks about it like it’s her baby.

Larson recently finished working on her pilot for Disney, and she described the pitch she sold as, “I went in and I was like, ‘Look, you guys have just wizards and rich kids on your channel, and we’ve got like an opioid epidemic. We need a new Huck Finn—I mean where kids can be happy without a bunch of stuff.’ So they bought that. Literally that’s how long the pitch was.”

Larson has been very fortunate in her career. Since her job on Dharma & Greg, she’s had steady work. In addition to her pilot with Disney, she still performs at comedy clubs in Los Angeles,2and is about to start teaching improv classes to some of the actors in Silicon Valley on the stage she and her husband built in her backyard.

“Martin Starr begged me [to teach improv]. It’s not a job but an experiment. It’s him and some other actors and a few people I know,” Julie said.

Upon first asking Julie what she finds most funny she said, “Off the top of my head, it’s small dogs with a bone so big they can barely hold it in their mouth, looking for a place to hide it, giving you dirty looks like you might steal it.”3

A day later, she texted me, “I have my REAL answer now.” And proceeded, “I can’t speak in favorites because the element of surprise is a lot of what makes people laugh. The original Greek definition of comedy and tragedy was that tragedy always happened with the gods and comedy is what happened between people. So, my feeling about that, gods always do what they are expected to as the god of war will do his thing, the goddess of love will do hers. But humans will surprise you. They will do unexpected things because they are flawed and love each other and hate each other. And they have endless attachments to things they have and can’t have. So it makes us laugh because we see ourselves and others in really funny things.”4

Larson owes a lot of her success now to her first two writing jobs. She describes herself as “extemporaneously funny,” which was something she had to learn to refine over the years to take her from her performing prowess to writing prowess.

“In Tina Fey’s book, Big Boss or whatever—no, it’s Bossypants—she says the best writers’ rooms are the perfect combination of improv nerds and Harvard nerds. And I am an improv nerd. I don’t like hanging on a joke. I can do it now, but I don’t like hanging on it and working on it and working on it. I need people around me that are more organized, but I can do a lot of stuff that comes more out of left field.”

Being an improv nerd is what got Larson through her seventeen years of unpaid comedy gigs without any desire to quit even if her career never broke.

“The number one thing is I wanted it so much, and I worked at it so hard, and it’s great, it’s really fun to do, but I think most of my friends didn’t get a career. And I think what I learned is we all wanna tell a story, through film or on stage, we wanna tell a great story, but the story you really tell is your life,” Larson said. “So people who march over other people to get what they want or who never get what they want and just hate it…whatever happens to you you have to—you will tell a story with your life, and you want it to be a great story. I just saw so many people not break through, and they were talented. It’s funny how it works, I’m not saying it’s just chance, but there’s an element of chance, and you have to have a great life no matter what happens. I mean, that’s the better goal.”

  1. Julie Larson, text message to Libby McCarthy, April 3, 2018
  2. In one of the new bits she’s working on, she plays a turtle named Sarah who turns into a human girl and becomes a model. “It’s just about someone who wishes to be something else.”
  3. Julie Larson, text message to Libby McCarthy, April 30, 2018.
  4. Julie Larson, text message to Libby McCarthy, May 1, 2018
 
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