Funny Females Drive the Vermont Comedy Scene | Comedy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
3 comments
MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

In the last several years, comedy has exploded in Vermont. That trend is consistent with a wider surge of interest in the art form — witness the overload of new comedy specials in your Netflix queue. But compared to the well-established comedy scenes in urban areas such as New York City, Boston and Chicago, Vermont's is a relative infant.

Yet the baby is growing: Bars, clubs and other venues around the state now regularly feature standup comedians. Major headliners including Dave Chappelle, Marc Maron and Janeane Garofalo sell out the Flynn MainStage. At the scene's hub — the Vermont Comedy Club in Burlington — cutting-edge up-and-comers appear weekly, often alongside locals. And VCC's comedy classes are more popular than ever, churning out record numbers of fresh-faced standup and improv performers. Perhaps most telling, Vermont expat comics find success in larger cities after honing their chops here.

Aside from its newness, something else differentiates Vermont's burgeoning comedy community: Women have been a driving factor in birthing and nurturing it. As a result, funny females arguably make up a larger percentage of the local scene than in most other places.

"The balance of women involved in comedy in Vermont is probably different from almost anywhere else," agrees Josie Leavitt.

Any conversation about comedy in the Green Mountains should start with Leavitt — the veteran comic essentially started it all. When she founded the Vermont Comedy Divas in 2006, outlets for comedy were few and rarely featured women. A decade later, that all-female collective of standups remains one of the state's biggest comedy draws, and the scene has her fingerprints all over it. Leavitt has also taught comedy classes in Burlington for years, using her experience in New York City standup to shepherd new generations of Vermont comedians.

Clockwise from left: Tina Friml, Katie Gillespie, Nicole Sisk, Kathleen Kanz, Natalie Miller, Annie Russell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Clockwise from left: Tina Friml, Katie Gillespie, Nicole Sisk, Kathleen Kanz, Natalie Miller, Annie Russell

Among her star former pupils are Natalie Miller and Nathan Hartswick, now the reigning couple of Vermont comedy. The married pair has been deeply instrumental in cultivating locavore comedy. Prior to launching the VCC in 2015, they operated Spark Arts, which offered classes in standup and improvisation. Sarah Venuti Yates, formerly of the VCC house long-form improv team the Unmentionables, was key in jumpstarting local improv, according to Miller; she and Hartswick are also members of that team.

The couple also helped expand the Green Mountain Comedy Festival, which Montpelier's Kathleen Kanz — central Vermont's answer to Leavitt — founded in 2009.

Miller says that because so many women have played important roles in the development of local comedy, the door is open for even more to get involved.

"The gender balance in our scene is really remarkable and unusual," she says. "I think it's largely because female comedians here have a lot of strong examples to look up to. When you see someone like you doing comedy, it's encouraging; it becomes a cycle."

That impact is true for a range of comedic disciplines in Vermont, from standup to improv to sketch. For yet another example, Angie Albeck and Marianne DiMascio founded the area's preeminent sketch team, Stealing From Work. Four of the group's five core members are female.

"The scene that has been created here is so welcoming to comedians of all perspectives," says Burlington comedian Annie Russell. "When you're on a comedy lineup in Vermont, you're with a diverse group of people. And that's so important and not the case everywhere."

Hillary Boone (left) and Nichole Magoon - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Hillary Boone (left) and Nichole Magoon

Russell's sentiment is widely shared here. However, just because women are well represented doesn't mean they're free from the issues that have historically plagued females in the entertainment industry: sexism, harassment and unbalanced booking practices, to name a few.

"There is a lot of sexism from male comedians, on stage and off," says Miller. She's speaking broadly, but adds that sexism in Vermont comedy, if not necessarily rampant, certainly exists. She also identifies a consistent culprit: "Basically, it's always a white guy."

So, how do she and Hartswick combat sexism at VCC? By booking more women. The club's calendar is always loaded with female standups. And if those comedy classes are any indication, the strategy is working. For example, Miller says that a recent beginner improv session featured more gals than guys. She adds that her staff is predominantly female, as well.

"We just book who's funny," says Miller.

In that regard, she and Hartswick have a plethora of options. And you can catch several of them at the monthly Girl Crush comedy showcase on Wednesday, July 19, at the VCC.

Seven Days recently spoke with seven of the state's notable funny females. Read on to find out more about them, and why they make us laugh.

— D.B.

Hillary Boone

Hillary Boone - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Hillary Boone

By day, Burlington's Hillary Boone is a sensibly dressed program manager at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. By night, she can be found explaining her look to the good folks assembled at the VCC.

"I open by saying, 'I'm a lesbian; that's what's going on here,'" she explains. "Just in case any of you were wondering if I'm a life-size Elf on the Shelf or a straight woman playing Peter Pan.'"

Absolutely gamine, Boone, 32, makes clear that her cropped hair is not a pixie cut, but rather a "bad-ass hipster haircut."

As a comedian, she draws on her experience as a shy, closeted kid growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, as well as the dark humor she cultivated in those formative years — when Take Back Vermont was in full swing.

"I talk a lot about being a lesbian," Boone asserts. Other topics? Vermont Public Radio's "Eye on the Sky" weather report, for one.

Boone got her start in 2012, when VCC founder and high school BFF Natalie Miller coaxed her into taking a six-week standup class. It culminated with a performance at the Monkey House in Winooski.

"I got so much positive reinforcement," Boone says. "I've never been so nervous or so sick about anything — and then it went really well."

So she stuck with it. In 2014, Boone was invited to join the Vermont Comedy Divas as host and RV driver for their New England tour. She's since joined the group as a comedian in her own right and has gone on to host the likes of Brian Posehn, as well as Burlington's local, live production of "The Moth Radio Hour."

Among her other accomplishments, Boone counts completing the Long Trail and "being I-Spy-ed approximately one times."

SEVEN DAYS: Who is your comedy idol and why?

HILLARY BOONE: If I were the best comic I could possibly be, I would be DeAnne Smith. The famous version of me already exists, and it's [her] — and she does everything better than I could. So I just love her.

SD: What was your worst experience with a heckler and how did you handle it?

HB: I've gotten good at hecklers. As a comic with the microphone, you have all the power. I've never had anyone totally humiliate me or derail my set. I think the worst is when people just aren't paying attention.

SD: Who is your favorite local comedian and why?

HB: I love watching Tracy Dolan. She's so smart.

SD: What is the best piece of comedic advice you've received?

HB: Hold for your laughs, from Josie Leavitt. When you're new and nervous, you're going to just launch into your next joke. But if you're confident enough and you know something is funny, you can just wait until they laugh. You can just hold the face and the laughter will even increase.

SD: So, tell me a joke.

HB: You know how everybody has the same decal on the back of their car windows? Stick-figure dad, stick-kid, stick-sports, whatever. I'm going to make my own that's going to just be a stick-figure me, laughing, surrounded by the piles of money I save by only taking care of myself.

— R.E.J.

Tina Friml

Tina Friml - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tina Friml

Tina Friml isn't wasting any time. The up-and-coming Burlington comedian opens every show with a punch — and punch line: "I'm Tina, and I'm disabled. But don't worry, you're going to be OK." Friml took her first comedy class at the VCC in October. She also has cerebral palsy, a movement disorder.

A self-described clean comic, the 23-year-old Saint Michael's College graduate uses her stage time to address disability and the way others respond to people who have one. Friml often incorporates hurtful things people have said to her, such as the girl in high school who whispered: "It's so inspiring that you're disabled but you're actually good at stuff."

Interested to see how she follows that? You'll have to go to a live show. Since graduating from the comedy class, Friml has been making the rounds at open mic nights at Drink and the Skinny Pancake in Burlington. She also recently performed in Boston Comedy Chicks Showcase and was just accepted to the Boston Comedy Arts Festival, which takes place in September.

SEVEN DAYS: Why do you think your work challenges people?

TINA FRIML: I think when you get up, and you're disabled, and you're making fun of yourself for being disabled, you're saying things that people have said to you that are kind of hard to hear. Like ugh! How could they say that! And then you're asking people to laugh at you. It's challenging. I think that disability is one of the most universally sensitive [topics]. You just don't joke about that, or, if you do, you're kind of like Bill Burr, or kind of a shock comic. It's offensive. And so I'm breaking that in that I'm doing comedy about disability, but in a way that is not demeaning to me or to other disabled people.

SD: Any favorite local comedians?

TF: Kendall Farrell. Right after I graduated the class [he taught], he invited me to be in his show, Comedy & Crepes at Skinny Pancake, and I was so stoked. I just couldn't believe I was actually booked to do a show. [And] when I saw him opening up for national acts at the Vermont Comedy Club, I was laughing so hard even after five minutes. So funny. And that's why I'm so thankful that I have his support. I kind of look at him as a comedic mentor.

SD: So, tell me a joke.

TF: I once went streaking and I made the evening news. It was all a blur.

— S.W.

Katie Gillespie

Katie Gillespie - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Katie Gillespie

Unlike most comics, Katie Gillespie always hated being the center of attention. But in 2011, while dating a comedian in Chicago, she thought, Maybe I can do this. So Gillespie took a standup class for female comics. Her first time on stage felt like "an outer-body experience," she says, but she enjoyed it enough to stick with it.

After moving to New Haven, Vt., two years ago, the Wisconsin native briefly put her comedy aside — until she attended an open mic night at the VCC, and landed some gigs.

This summer, Gillespie is again taking a brief hiatus from standup to become, of all things, a grief counselor. Currently a hospice volunteer, she recently trained as a "death doula," helping people plan loved ones' passings. Ultimately, she wants to use comedy to help others grieve — just as it helped her cope with her father's death four years ago.

"Finding humor in those things feels really good," she says. "It turns something isolating into a shared experience."

SEVEN DAYS: Who are your comedy idols?

KATIE GILLESPIE: I really like Tig Notaro and Maria Bamford. They both take things that are really serious and make them funny. Maria has a lot of mental health issues, so she talks about that very openly on stage. Tig has this set where [she talks about] when her mom died, she got diagnosed with breast cancer and her girlfriend dumped her. Those are three of the saddest things that can happen to somebody, yet she made them so funny.

SD: What was your worst experience with a heckler?

KG: I've never been heckled! I guess that whole nice-midwestern-lady thing works in my favor.

SD: Who's your favorite local comedian?

KG: I can't pick just one. I really like Annie Russell, Bitsy Biron, Tracy Dolan, Kathleen Kanz. Annie is such a great joke writer. Tracy Dolan is possibly the most likeable human ever. Kathleen has such a unique style, lots of one-liners. That's a kind of comedy that I really admire and appreciate, because my brain doesn't work that way.

SD: What's the best piece of comedic advice you've received?

KG: At the end of your day, it's only a few minutes of your life. You're on stage from five to 20 minutes and, no matter how good or bad you are, most people are not going to remember it. So, it takes the pressure off.

SD: Got a joke?

KG: When my dad died, he left me one of the family cemetery plots. I don't want to be buried, but I'm a landowner now. And, I think there's something to this tiny house trend! I see zero reason not to move in right now, because that neighborhood is super quiet.

— K.P.

Annie Russell

Annie Russell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Annie Russell

Annie Russell is not a storytelling comic, exactly — for one thing, her jokes tend to be short. But she does have a gift for crafting compelling tales. The 33-year-old Burlington comedian is blessed with an incisive and insightful perspective, and keen instincts likely honed by working as the deputy news director at Vermont Public Radio. But her most frequent target is herself, deploying wry humor to riff on everything from family and politics to relationships, life and death.

"My style is very autobiographical," she explains.

Russell is Vermont's comedic Swiss Army Knife. She's an accomplished and increasingly in-demand standup who has opened for Marc Maron, Jen Kirkman and Al Madrigal, among others. She's also a member of the local improv troupe Hot Popsicle. Additionally, Russell hosts and curates "Cringe! A Night of Hilarious Humiliation." That series features comedians and other notable local figures who share embarrassing tidbits about their lives. And because it is apparently law for comedians to have podcasts, she's the host of the No Chill Podcast.

Few other local comics can match that diversity of disciplines. But to Russell, they're all connected.

"Whether I'm writing a script for a podcast or a radio story or a standup joke, it's all about honesty and putting yourself out there," she says. "It's all about telling a story."

SEVEN DAYS: Who is your comedy idol and why?

ANNIE RUSSELL: I love comedians like Jen Kirkman. She is so experienced and amazing on stage but flies under the radar of the super-famous comedians. But it's such an education to watch her perform.

SD: What was your worst experience with a heckler and how did you handle it?

AR: I don't get a lot of hecklers, because comedy audiences in Vermont are awesome. So, when I've been heckled, it's by people who weren't there to see a comedy show — bars or restaurants where we have sprung a comedy show on an audience that did not consent.

SD: Who is your favorite local comedian and why?

AR: Tina Friml. If she's not on your radar, she should be. Because she's hilarious.

SD: What are the most pressing challenges women face in comedy?

AR: That's an interesting question. I wish we could stop talking about women in comedy, that we could be seen simply as comedians. But the reality is, we're not at that point yet. There still is a difference between what men and women experience in comedy. Booking can be challenging in other places. There is a safety issue. I've had people approach me after shows ... or message me on Facebook in ways I'm not comfortable with. That's something I'm always aware of — that attention I'm getting might not be welcome attention.

SD: So, tell me a joke.

AR: I was a very emotional child. I realize now that not everybody else called their teacher "mom" and immediately cried in the corner for 45 minutes. In seventh grade. Not everyone had to Irish-goodbye a sleepover because the "David the Gnome" finale was too upsetting. That was just me.

And whenever I tell that story, my friends say I'm using the term "Irish goodbye" wrong. Apparently they think it's when you get too drunk and leave the party without saying goodbye. But my grandparents are from Ireland. I know that an Irish goodbye is when you express an emotion, then feel so much shame about it that you cross the ocean and start a new life.

I'm kidding, of course. An Irish goodbye is when you say goodbye 10 times and never leave.

— D.B.

Kathleen Kanz

Kathleen Kanz - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Kathleen Kanz

Kathleen Kanz is pretty sure there is a funny gene. But she readily notes that she was adopted, so she can't be certain. She just knows that, even as a little kid growing up in Boston, she made people laugh. In one memorable instance, Kanz recalls, some slightly older girls paid her a nickel to do her Ed Sullivan imitation. "Now when I look back, they might have been high," she reflects.

After she left home and her circle of friends and family, Kanz, 55, realized she could make strangers laugh, too. But she didn't begin performing onstage until after graduate school — she got a master's in regional planning. That was in 1994, and Kanz decided to put her own feet to the fire: "I wanted to perform in New York City to see if anyone would laugh at me," she explains. They did.

A job at a software company brought Kanz to Vermont in 1996; she lived in the Woodstock area and, finding no local comedy scene, continued her forays to the city. In 2007, she moved to Montpelier — Kanz now works for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board — and started a comedy series at the Black Door Bar & Bistro.

She went on to found the Green Mountain Comedy Festival, as well as Comic Relief — A Benefit for COTS. She won the 2016 Vermont's Funniest Comedian competition — the first woman to do so. Kanz estimates she performed 68 shows last year. 

Later this month, she'll revive her comedy series at deMena's — the former Black Door — in Montpelier. And she warns on the poster: "No chatter during the show."

SEVEN DAYS: Who is your comedy idol and why?

KATHLEEN KANZ: I watched "The Ed Sullivan Show" ... Mike Douglas, George Carlin, Johnny Carson, [David] Letterman. When Steven Wright came on Johnny Carson — he did [comedy] like no one else had done it. I think like that: that weird logic. As for female comedians: Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. That wasn't standup, but they had to think on their feet.

SD: What was your worst experience with a heckler and how did you handle it?

KK: I've never had someone be demeaning to me. But I do have a sharp tongue and could handle it. [She's most bothered by people who talk during shows: "I'll walk over to them and say, 'Please stop talking or leave.'"]

SD: What is the best piece of comedic advice you've received?

KK: I never wanted to take a comedy class; there's nothing interesting to me about having comedy explained — I want to discover the whole thing. But when audiences respond [positively], your comedy grows stronger.

SD: So, tell me a joke.

KK: I love asparagus. I eat it at least once a week. When I start the water to boil, I hear music begin in my head and I go right ahead and sing: "This is the dawning of the age of asparagus, age of asparagus, a ... spar ... a ... GUS." I hope that is burned in your memory.

— P.P.

Nichole Magoon

Nichole Magoon - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Nichole Magoon

Nichole Magoon has some advice for audience members at improv comedy shows: Stop shouting "dildo."

"We love getting suggestions from the audience," she says. "But sometimes we'll get audience members who will go out of their way to get noticed." She explains that overeager fans will yell things when a scene is happening or try to overpower other suggestions. Or they'll make overtly sexual or inappropriate answers to every suggestion asked for, even if it doesn't make sense.

"Like 'dildo' for a location," says Magoon. "In fact, most times it's 'dildo.' People love to suggest 'dildo' for some reason."

Magoon, 30, is a digital community manager at Champlain College and a 10-year veteran of Vermont's improv comedy scene. The Windsor native got her start with a troupe at college and later began attending drop-in classes at Spark Arts. She was a member of the now-defunct troupe Napoleon, and currently performs with the VCC touring team. She'll soon debut a new, as-yet-unnamed long-form act.

Magoon has also dabbled in standup. But, comedy-wise, improv is her first love.

"I actually have horrible stage fright, so doing standup is terrifying for me," she says. "But I'm comfortable doing improv. There's no expectation. You're just going out there and can't overthink anything."

SEVEN DAYS: Who is your comedy idol and why?

NICHOLE MAGOON: I grew up watching "Saturday Night Live," so it's definitely Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Watching them on SNL was a highlight of my childhood, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be that funny, confident female. I noticed in my childhood that females weren't that prevalent in comedy, and I didn't realize how true that was until I got into the comedy scene. And I still want to be like them.

SD: What was your worst experience with a heckler and how did you handle it?

NM: There was one time we did a show that was a surprise for the people that were there. It was a company party and they definitely didn't want us there. So, at one point, some woman said, "For the love of God, shut up." But we carried on. We decided just to have fun with it, and we did.

SD: Who is your favorite local comedian and why?

NM: I really love Tim Bridge. I've known Tim for years and have seen him grow as a comedian. I always enjoy watching him, whether it's standup or improv or sketch — he's an overall triple threat. And his Bernie Sanders impression kills me every single time.

And I love Natalie Miller. Not only as a comedian but [also for] being an influential leader in the comedy scene. She's a boss-ass bitch. It's really inspiring and a good influence on women in comedy. Her message is always: "Don't take shit from anyone. You're just as funny, just as awesome. So get out there, do comedy and be fearless."

SD: What is the best piece of comedic advice you've received?

NM: Stop being afraid. There are going to be times when you're afraid. But you have to get past it, get out there and have fun.

SD: So, tell me a joke.

NM: I recently signed up for online dating. The other day, I received an email from the service saying they had someone who was a 95 percent match for me. I opened it up. Turns out, I was matched with my brother. Out of all the matches on the internet, my soul mate is apparently my brother. So, I did what anyone else would do in that scenario — I called him up and asked him to dinner.  Because, apparently, we have a lot of things in common ... like parents.

— D.B.

Nicole Sisk

Nicole Sisk - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Nicole Sisk

Nicole Sisk, 23, has been doing standup comedy for as long as she's been a park attendant. But don't expect her to help you identify flowers. "I'm usually pretty honest about my lack of knowledge," Sisk says. "I have accidentally sent people in the wrong direction that I feel very bad about."

Another thing Sisk is reticent about is telling jokes offstage. But, thankfully, she doesn't feel the same reluctance when she's on one.

"I have an estranged relationship with my dad, and so I talk about him a lot," Sisk says. "It's different talking about your personal things on stage than in one-on-one conversations."

A Charlotte native and current Burlington resident, Sisk debuted in comedy at Nectar's four years ago. Since then, she has performed throughout New England and far-flung locales from New York City to Los Angeles to Paris. Sisk carries her little joke book at all times and whips it out whenever she gets inspired.

"Once you start writing jokes, you're looking for it everywhere," she says. "It becomes the way you think."

SEVEN DAYS: How do you get better at doing standup comedy?

NICOLE SISK: Going out and seeing other people is incredibly important. Getting up on stage, even if you don't have anything to say, is really important to getting comfortable on stage. You have to retrain your brain. After doing it for a little bit, you start to think of things in joke terms. It can be annoying, because not everything is a joke.

SD: What do you say to people who expect you to tell jokes all the time?

NS: A lot of people are cool about it, and they realize that it's the same as any other hobby — that is, you wouldn't force them to do it in a social setting. But I've gotten some weird comments. One time, someone found out I did standup comedy after we'd known each other for a couple of weeks, and he made a comment about how I hadn't made him laugh yet.

SD: How did you happen to do standup comedy in Paris last May?

NS: I was on a trip with a couple of people I know through standup. It was surprisingly easy to get a show. My friend messaged someone on Facebook and sent some clips. We did two shows in the attic of a movie theater. It was definitely interesting. People laughed at different points in jokes. I felt, overall, my jokes still worked.

SD: What is your ultimate career goal?

NS: To be a writer for television. I'll still keep doing standup, but I don't know that I want to make a career out of standup comedy. It's very stressful. But it's an important part of doing comedy and learning how to write. 

SD: So, tell me a joke.

NS: I get catcalled sometimes, which is always annoying. But you do have to give more credit to some people than others. I was walking home after buying groceries recently, and I walked by an old homeless man. And as I walked by, he said, "Man! I wish I was 40 years younger, you're so beautiful!" And I just had to admire his confidence that the age difference was the only thing stopping us.

— K.S.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Laughing Matters"

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Seven Days moderates comments in order to ensure a civil environment. Please treat the comments section as you would a town meeting, dinner party or classroom discussion. In other words, keep commenting classy! Read our guidelines...

Note: Comments are limited to 300 words.