by Ryan Meehan
Judith Shelton is an actor, comedian, writer and teacher living in Los Angeles. Her first television role was playing Kramer’s girlfriend Sally on the legendary hit show Seinfeld, and she was a series regular on the CBS sitcom The Gregory Hines Show. As a stand-up comedian she has performed at top California comedy venues such as The Comedy Store, The Improv, The Laugh Factory, The Ice House, Flappers and UCB as well as many more. She studied improv at The Groundlings and iOWest where she landed on a mainstage Harold team and created her show RELATIONSH!T now in its seventh year. Not coincidentally, during this time she started working regularly in many national commercials for companies like Nike, Capitol One, Vicks, Hallmark, Priceline, Sherwin-Williams and Visa. Five years back, Judith began teaching stand-up on a lark to improvisers as a way to help them expand their talents and become more comfortable playing themselves on stage. She is thrilled to be teaching and performing, as each tends to inform and nurture the other. Ninety-five class sessions and hundreds of students later, she teaches sold-out classes to many performers and non-performers alike. From established comics, actors and improvisers to stay-at-home moms/dads, lawyers, psychotherapists, musicians, school teachers, writers, software designers, forensic pathologists, ER doctors and corporate nine-to-fivers…all are welcome! We are pleased to have Judith Shelton to discuss that facet of her career and many others as she is our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: Your Facebook cover photo shows a picture of Shelly Duvall, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, and Laraine Newman from what I’m assuming is the early days of Saturday Night Live…Other than those funny ladies, who were some of the other talented performers you followed during your early years of development which really cemented your interest in comedy as a career path? Was there any one performance in particular that absolutely floored you and made you realize that humor had just changed your life forever?
JS: Yes, SNL really had an impact on me in my early teens. I would stay up, watch the show and then bug everyone in my boarding school doing the sketches over and over in class, the hallway, the bathroom stall, you name it. As a little kid, I watched Jerry Lewis movies whenever they came on our local station. I love him so much, I have his Hirschfeld caricature tattooed on my ankle. He made me laugh like a loon as a kid, which helped me cope with an unstable household. Also, Bugs Bunny and Snoopy. I am partial to physical comedy. I’d say the one performance that influenced me most is in Cinderfella, when Jerry Lewis comes down the stairs to Count Basie and then dances like a toothy marionette in front of the Princess Charming. My favorite stand-up comedians coming up were Martin Lawrence and Richard Pryor. Martin because he, too, was such a clown, so silly and playful but also very feeling, very emotional. And Pryor because of his pain and honesty. I felt like I was sitting next to him in some of those shows. I felt like we would understand each other, that somehow we’d be friends. Which cracks me up now, thinking of 17 year-old me in my bi-level ‘80s haircut and polka dot miniskirt and fishnets hanging out with RICHARD FUCKING PRYOR! But I felt like we came from the same place.
RM: How would you best describe the sets you did during your first few years of stand-up? Looking back on those shows, what were some of the most common mistakes you made and had to train yourself to filter out of your act?
JS: When I started, I wore my entire Catholic boarding school uniform, the whole shebang and retold plots from Bugs Bunny cartoons. I was a total mess, but I was enthusiastic and giddy so people laughed (at me, probably) and I was bitten by the bug. I loved those days, but eventually, the “costume” came off and I started telling stories about my crazy childhood and at the time it felt right. I wouldn’t say I made any mistakes, I think it was all part of my growth, but I do think I was a bit of a raw nerve and maybe sometimes, made people uncomfortable or worry about me. I’d be lying if I said that still doesn’t happen, sometimes. They call it “confessional comedy” now so, hey, it’s legit.
RM: On a scale of one to ten where one is minimal and ten is monumental, how much pressure do actors and actresses on the set of a television show face when it comes to nailing one of the first few takes so that the studio audience doesn’t grow tired of the joke?
JS: Holy crap, so much pressure. It’s not the audience I worry about, although as a comic, I am trained to listen for laughter and if it doesn’t come, it hurts so bad. On a TV show, the writers and execs are all standing ten feet away and breathing down your neck. I can only speak from my experience, but if you don’t nail it, before you can even try again, they’ve rewritten it, or worse, you’re cut out of the scene. I started with five lines on Seinfeld, but ended with one…word. Man, those were the days!
RM: How did the concept of RELATIONSH!T come to fruition, and what can you tell us about that show and its subject matter?
JS: In March 2008, I was on a Harold team at iOWest in Hollywood and working in the box office there. I told two comedy pals about an idea I had for a show and sure enough, they told James Grace our Artistic Director and he gave me a spot to try the show out for a night and it eventually ran every Saturday night for a few years. RELATIONSH!T is a live, improvised talk show about sex, love and relationships. My friend Amy Schloerb (and sometimes Kara Simpson) collects the audience’s anonymous questions on tiny pieces of paper in the bar before the show starts. I do a little monologue up top about my own love life, or whatever you call it, then I interview my rotating panel of guest “experts” about their love lives or whatever they call it. Then Amy brings up the box and as a panel we pick and answer the questions. I started it for two reasons: I wanted to date after a long marriage and I needed to find out all about modern sex (and grooming, texting, etc.). Also, I wanted to talk to guys. I wanted an excuse to sit real close to them and touch their knees.
RM: Which element of your comedic training is the most helpful when shooting commercials and why? How do you go about blocking out the stress associated with the repetition of such shoots; and which one of those spots required the most focus from you as an actress?
JS: Good question! Improv has helped me the most in commercial work for sure, hands down. Improv has taught me to find the game of a scene as well as create the environment and the relationships all while staying open, listening and co-creating with others. My whole life changed when I started doing improv. It helped me fall in love with people again by continually accepting what they offer by saying “yes” and then adding to the relationship by saying “and”. With improv, nothing feels repetitive exactly, because we’re in the moment and constantly receiving and giving, so it couldn’t possibly be the same even if it is physically, which it is a lot. I have found, in my jobs, that they don’t want me to do the same thing every time. They want lots of takes to choose from, so they usually let me “play” to one degree or another. “Walk up and down this aisle. Now do it as if you smelled something bad. Now do it as it you have a pebble in your shoe. Now do it as if you’re in love.” I have to focus in every job because I get distracted by silly things. I want to be smart and hilarious and look gorgeous and young and all that crap is circling my brain while I am playing a nun about to go off a cliff before William Shatner saves us all. Totally unhelpful stuff, so I have to focus. I am kind of a kitten and it’s all string to me. (BTW, that nun commercial was for Priceline and in a YouTube comment someone wrote “Who’s the dude playing the nun?”)
RM: How has your own writing process evolved over the course of your career with regards to developing material for stand-up? What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve made to how you construct a bit now as opposed to how you built a joke from scratch ten years ago?
JS: Ten years ago, I just got up with an idea and “wrote on stage”. It was messy but also super fun and terrifying, which was also fun. The pro was: I was in the moment and didn’t have the time to judge myself or silence what I might regret later. I discovered what was lurking in my head, heart and gut almost by accident. I have my students improvise in class occasionally for this very reason. The con was: I could be an emotional wreck, because without tested material, I never knew if I’d be good that particular night. What if I was having a bad day? What if I felt ugly that day and hated myself (common)? It was all so darn dramatic back then. Without solid material in my back pocket, all I could hope for was to be “on”. Now, I write a lot. I have great jokes that work every time and I can rely on them. The only trouble I have now is, I don’t feel as comfortable being weird anymore. New jokes come to me very slowly now and take more time to develop because I don’t take as many risks. I’d like to go back to being a hurricane, I really would.
RM: What is the biggest mistake you see younger comedians in this industry make; and why do you think it’s so difficult for up-and-coming comics to avoid that blunder as well as similar career-threatening pitfalls?
JS: I see the younger comics doing almost everything right these days! They’re extremely driven, performing live every chance they get as well as making tons of content online. As a young comic, my only job was to get shows and do shows. Comics these days are writers, directors, editors, craft service, PR people and bookers. They amaze me. I caution my students to cool it with the drinking before shows, but that’s always been a thing. We open ourselves up, up there. It’s painful. We all look for ways to deal with it. My biggest issue with my students and I think this is the one place a class can hurt a student, is that they get so much quality feedback in class, so much support, that they hit one open mic and quit. They get no laughs at a mic (common), they think they suck and then they give up. It’s heartbreaking. It’s the dividing line, though. It’s not enough to be talented, you have to get out there and do it, over and over and over again. You have to be ambitious and thick-skinned, at least for the evening. Hopefully without medicating yourself with drugs or alcohol or donuts. We have lost a lot of comics over time. It can be a lonely and tricky life for some of us, scratching the scabs off the same sad wounds.
RM: Where do you stand on the topic of crowd work and how it fits into your own sets? Do you think that most comics should have a portion of crowd work set aside for when their planned material isn’t going as well as expected, or do you belong to the school of thought that believes any working of the crowd whatsoever detracts from the flow of the set?
JS: I am a fan of crowd work! I do it a lot! I like people and I want to know them in a way. I want to know who’s out there. I know lots of comics hate crowd work, but I have a crowd work night in my class. However, never, ever, ever would I suggest to use it when your material isn’t working. That’s mighty transparent. I use it to create a bond, a relationship. Having gone from stand-up to improv back to stand-up, I see the audience as the other half of my team. I throw something out and they respond and then I respond to their response. That is just how I work and teach. I never force my students to become crowd work comics, but if they ask “How you guys doing tonight?” I want them to listen to the answer. It sets the tone for the night, and in my opinion, creates trust. If I see a comic and they don’t at least acknowledge us, I feel cheated. I can see the script running right behind their eyes and it feels phony. Improv did me in. Many things feel phony to me now if there’s no relationship. Stupid improv.
RM: What are some of the reasons that individuals outside of the profession of comedy have given you as the motive to take one of your classes? Do you find it’s more of a desire on their part to get into performing in general as opposed to the very specific art that is stand-up?
JS: Many non-performers say they take my class because they want to try something that scares them, shake up their life a little bit. I have a blast with these folks. They have no agenda except to try stuff. That’s a great place to be, I admire it. A large amount of folks come because they secretly want to do comedy. Lawyers, doctors, scientists. It privately pains me to see people with secure jobs, health benefits and vacation days want to chuck it all for comedy. I daydream about what I’d do with all their dough and stability. They have a certain zest that got them there and that usually transfers, at least in terms of drive, quite well to stand-up. They hustle! So at first, I’m pained, but then I get re-inspired by their excitement and joy. I get reminded of my first time getting up in a coffee house and hearing that laughter because of something I said. They have an urge to be creative. Some want to be comics, some just want to learn to write, some just want to learn to deal with people better. I get that a lot, too. Lawyers who want to be better in the courtroom, singers who want better patter between their songs, things like that.
RM: What is the most rewarding feeling you get from teaching those classes? Do you think that over time your reasons for continuing to teach stand-up will change?
JS: I really never saw myself teaching stand-up, ever. An Improviser I respected asked me to teach a class after she saw RELATIONSH!T and truth be told, I needed the money. I was going through a divorce at the time. I was hesitant because traditionally, stand-ups go it alone. After studying improv, I was bowled over by the group environment/art-by-committee process and found it works for stand-ups, too. But to answer your question, I feel helpful. I mean, as an actor, it’s all about me, me, me and as a teacher, I let all that go and focus on others. I get to help them find their voice, as sappy as that sounds, and use it. They bring stuff in, I say more, more, more and they say OK. I get to be supportive. I ask questions and they answer and in that process they fall in love with themselves and great things start to happen! They come in sometimes, wanting to be Louis C.K. or Sarah Silverman. I help them find who THEY are as comics and it’s invigorating, I am grateful I get to do it. I adore my students and have found that “loving them in the right direction” pays off. It totally works, every time. Even if they can’t love themselves exactly, they can love the elaborate ways they hate themselves (common).
I hope my motivation to teach never changes. I keep an eye on myself. I came here as a young actor and I know there are predatory teachers out there. I want to make sure I never hold anyone back. I have students who want to study with me forever. I have to force them to go and it’s painful for both of us. But stand-ups develop best in the clubs (coffee shops, bars, basements), not in a classroom. It’s a nice place and for some, a perfect place to start. A classroom can create many good habits, a strong community and sense of self. But stand-up is a relationship. You can’t have it alone, you need people. All kinds of people.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JS: I have a couple neat meetings with people about my show but they’re still in the meeting phase so I don’t have anything solid to report yet. It’s really good to be back here after a long break trying to do anything but comedy. I tried teaching grade school, I was a tax preparer and dog walker. I came back to what I love and things are moving once again and it’s exciting!
So let’s just say for now, I am trying to eat right and pay off a couple credit cards.
And RELATIONSH!T plays the third Thursday of every month at iOWest in Hollywood.
Official Website: http://www.judithshelton.com
Judith on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judeshelton
Judith on Twitter: https://twitter.com/judithshelton
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