Cindy Pierce says her stand-up act "illustrates my lifelong determination to find humor rather than humiliation from my anatomy." Like some of the best comics, she's learned to share embarrassing moments so you don't have to. The funny thing is, though, she's not embarrassed at all. And a refreshing candor about sexuality, body parts and the universal miscues between the genders is not what you expect from a New England innkeeper and mother of three young children -- two boys and a girl.
Pierce and her husband Bruce Lingelbach run Pierce's Inn in Etna, New Hampshire, near Hanover; it's the place her parents ran before them, and where Pierce grew up. A tomboy and athlete who later became a ski coach and first-grade teacher, Pierce attributes her lack of constraint to being the youngest of seven children -- and to the years she spent playing in the Little League and learning what makes boys, um, insecure. But neither of these influences can take all the credit for a stage presence that one Upper Valley critic described as "a cross between Lily Tomlin and Dr. Ruth Westheimer."
Pierce, who just turned 40, had her first public performance less than two years ago. That makes her a late bloomer in an industry that prizes youth. Luckily, the laugh circuit prizes one thing even more: being hilarious. Pierce has been a natural drama queen since childhood. "In seventh grade, doing Peter Pan, the teacher told me I have comic timing," she recalls. Like Steve Martin, she can be silly at the drop of a hat and has an impressive repertoire of facial expressions. Pierce also has a rubbery physicality that says: "I am comfortable with my body."
It's easy for others to be comfortable with her, too: Average in height and boyish in build, she doesn't wear a speck of makeup or get dressed up for her shows. This is a woman who was born to wear jeans. Her demeanor is direct but non-threatening. And though her material is often excruciatingly explicit, Pierce mostly makes fun of herself. Judging from the rave reactions to her shows -- from both genders -- her self-deprecating stories hit home.
Pierce says only one New York City audience was tough to crack -- but she went on to win a comedy contest there the next night. "I think I won them over with my interpretative dance about the difference between the two genders' private body parts," she confides.
In between cooking, cleaning toilets, making beds, and taking care of kids and guests, Pierce came to Burlington last week to promote her October 1 show at the Flynn. She stopped in to Seven Days for a chat.
SEVEN DAYS: How, and when, did you get started doing stand-up?
CINDY PIERCE: About one and a half years ago, I was telling a story at this women's ski group in Colorado. They were so blown away, they said, "You have to take this seriously!" One of them was a judge at a women's comedy festival and she said to get her a tape. Another friend approached me and said, "Just go for it, do it at your inn." So I sent out an email to all my friends with my most offensive topics and said, "Here's what I'm doing, what do you think?"
SD: So who came to comedy night at the inn?
CP: I invited everyone locally; about 60 came. Everyone loved it. People said, "You gotta keep this going." My husband loved every minute of it. He's beaming with pride, meanwhile I'm telling all the details of our sex life. He loves people's discomfort with this stuff -- that might be part of his attraction to me.
I sent a tape of this to the judge of the comedy fest. She said it was good, now do it under lights. So then I did a show at Dartmouth, and 120 people showed up.
SD: College kids?
CP: I always say adults only, because of the graphic descriptions. My last warning wasn't enough -- my mom's bridge friends came. They said, "We're not afraid of a few swears." I said, "It's more the details about my anus and my sex life." But by that time someone had written an article about me and they knew what the show was about. They came and they weren't shocked. I'm always surprised the older generation isn't shocked.
SD: What about the men?
CP: I'm cheering the men on; they want and need guidance about communication and sex. They need help to find the elusive clitoris.
We've got to communicate, one way or another. If you're not going to communicate, we're going to have to have another system of communicating, like a little flight attendant who pops out and gives instructions . . .
SD: How specific is your show? Do you make people squirm?
CP: Although it's graphic, it's not raunchy . . . People have often had the same experiences and are grateful I'm sharing. It's vicarious, and it's a release.
SD: Why did you choose sexual material?
CP: It's not all sexual. But sexuality is such a source of embarrassment and shame growing up. Somewhere in my teens I said, "I'm not going to take on shame." When boys would make degrading comments, I decided to get tough. I'm grateful for my Little League experience -- they didn't see me as a girl until I was 15, so I was privy to a lot of information. I learned all about boys and am not afraid to verbally castrate a guy. It's for my own survival . . . I'm very careful to use that knowledge only if I really need to.
SD: Like what?
CP: What they had angst about. People talk about the short penis situation. It's more than that; it's what makes them feel inadequate. That can be very much related to their gear. A heterosexual guy only knows his own gear, and if he can't please a woman, he wonders why.
Once a guy pulled up in front of me in a motorcycle and pulled out his dick. Without missing a beat I said, "Don't you think that's a little small to be showing us?" I'm protective of men, but not the sketchy ones.
SD: How does this translate to raising boys?
CP: We have a responsibility as mothers to teach our boys to communicate. It's not really happening for boys yet. I was a first-grade teacher and I found that already they had ideas about what it meant to be a male.
I did my Master's on how kids develop socially. When you ask them, they have a ton to say, but normally they keep it inside. I learned a lot that year about young boys.
SD: What's this got to do with your comedy routine?
CP: Those are the things that have been shaping me over the years, observing those dynamics. They also empowered me to question these things and take risks and get out there . . . By the time the shame started coming in puberty and stepping into womanhood, I could find the humor and skirt the shame; I could get outside myself, and I encouraged my friends to do the same.
SD: Being in a large family must have presented some interesting dynamics.
CP: When I was 6, my brother was married to a radical feminist -- they ended up divorced because she decided she was a lesbian. Actually, another brother married a radical feminist, too. My mother had four teenagers in the '60s; I watched her grow. My parents' parenting philosophy had to be edited completely.
SD: Again, how does this relate to your humor?
CP: All of this has left me confident; I have no shame, and I'm not afraid to say what I think. I am unconfined and so grateful. I think being the youngest of seven is a big part of that.
SD: Give me an example of how men and women react to you.
CP: Men will pull me aside and thank me for talking about the elusive clitoris. These are hot men who've had plenty of action -- women will compromise for these men. But no one's telling these guys where the goodies are. They'll say, "My wife just wants me to know what gives her pleasure." I say, "I'm not moody, but my vagina is moody, so I can't predict it. I have to give guidance every time." I think men finally feel like they're not alone.
Men just love the bit about how I went into a men's bathroom once and picked up what I thought was soap; it was bathroom deodorizer. This is legendary in the ski world. That story makes men chuckle, it gives them a chance to laugh at me. I'm willing to put myself on the line.
SD: And women?
CP: A lot of them say, "I could relate to your experience as a tomboy." Or birth -- "I'd forgotten these things about birth, I'd blocked it out." Or bras -- getting those jugs harnessed to go running.
Women and men love the language -- like when I talk about the words for vagina. After the last show, four different people told me it takes them about 10 minutes to get down to having sex, because they spend the first 10 minutes talking and laughing about my act.
SD: This is your first Burlington appearance. Why did you decide to rent the Flynn MainStage? That's a big room.
CP: Well, when we first approached the Lebanon Opera House, they were skeptical. The guy thought we'd have an empty house. My friends were passing the word around, but after the article came out in the paper, there was this tipping point. They sold out three days beforehand; people were scalping tickets in the front. It was strange. It made me say, "Whoa, this resonates; this is universal humor."
My friends are helping -- they're promotional machines. So many people believe in it, so I know there's some energy in it. We're going to take it city by city.
SD: Since you've started performing, has your brain clicked into a different gear, always alert for comic material?
CP: I've always had this ability to get outside myself and notice what's funny. I always write it down, and I have these files of humorous material. It's in five categories: bodily humor, stories about kids, gender stuff, my family, inn stories.
Now I'm kind of honing my skills, getting better at gleaning the humorous bits. I already have three topics for the next show. They'll evolve out of what really resonates for people in this show.
SD: Sounds pretty organic.
CP: I've heard that comics have a hard time finding material; that's the least of my worries. Standing up on stage doesn't faze me. Whereas my husband wears Kotex maxi pads under his arms to introduce me. Athletic tape and a giant pad.
SD: Does he always introduce you?
CP: He does a lot. He makes comments and doesn't tell me what he's going to say -- it's his chance to get a little jab at me. Bruce went to UVM, so it's sort of fun for him to be coming up here.
SD: Is he funny, too?
CP: He's a dry-humor guy, very quiet. But he keeps me on my toes. People say, "You're so good, but your husband!" I think it's a mystery to a lot of people that someone could be married to me. But people are comforted by him -- they're like, "OK, if he's game, we can let this go."
SD: Was your husband attracted to your sense of humor?
CP: We didn't get each other's sense of humor [when] we worked together as ski coaches. He thought I was brash, loud, insensitive -- I am all of those things. I thought he was aloof, not that much fun. We just caught on to each other after a couple years. He liked my strength and conviction; I liked that he called me on my bullshit.
SD: Who do you think is funny?
CP: Stockard Channing and Cher, during the "Sonny & Cher" show -- those were the first people I thought were funny, when I was in middle school. Robin Williams. Jerry Seinfeld. Whoopi Goldberg. Ellen Degeneres.
SD: Do you watch comics on TV?
CP: I should watch, but I'm too busy cleaning toilets and taking care of kids. We just watch the Patriots and the Tour de France. But I listen to Jerry Seinfeld, one of his stand-up things. It's amazing how you can not have the same kind of humor, but learn so much from listening and watching.
SD: Such as?
CP: Timing. I have delivery down, but I'm still learning this stuff. What to do while people are laughing. How to end a bit, take a little water break. The rhythms.
SD: So it's all in the timing?
CP: Yes, the building of timing. Sometimes I just stumble upon it, but there's a lot of work to be done, polishing the show. Though of course I'll never be truly polished.
SD: Are your kids funny?
CP: One has Bruce's subtle style, one has my piss-and-vinegar humor. The littlest one has both. People say, "That guy is funny!" And he's 3!
SD: They don't get to see your act?
CP: No. The oldest one can read. I tell him some of the stories without the graphic parts. But they are proud; they know that people like to hear my stories and that they are for grown-ups. For about a month after my last show, my 3-year-old would say, "Congratulations!" and give me a hug -- because he'd hear other people say it.
SD: With all the work you have at home, how do you do all this?
CP: I sacrifice cleaning my own toilet . . . I'm not a perfectionist; that really helps out.