Josie Leavitt is almost everything an audience could want in a stand-up comedian. She meets the first criteria: She's funny. At 40, she has a face made attractive more by her personality and sense of humor than genetics. The grey flecks in her shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and her robust torso give her an appearance that's unthreatening, quirky and ultimately inviting. Leavitt talks to her audience as if she's chatting with a neighbor over a backyard fence. Her material runs the gamut from a joke about her mother getting hit on by another woman in a sauna to how we really feel when we ask, "How are you?"
Leavitt worked as a comic in clubs in New York City, including the famous Caroline's, and colleges in the Northeast for about four years. She moved to Vermont in 1996 to open Flying Pig Bookstore with Elizabeth Bluemle, her partner in life and business. Since moving to Charlotte, Leavitt also has served as one of the town's planning commissioners, and on Charlotte Rescue, where she's been chief for just over a year.
Leavitt recently taught a six-week stand-up comedy class to burgeoning female comedians at the Flynn Center in Burlington. That class, and performances Leavitt did at Higher Ground, inspired her latest brainchild: a monthly comedy night at the FlynnSpace. The series begins Tuesday, August 16.
SEVEN DAYS: Most Vermonters have two jobs, but owning a bookstore and being a stand-up comedian is an interesting combination. Do you have any bookseller jokes?
JOSIE LEAVITT: It's not really jokes, it's more what customers say. Like this woman wanted a book. She's like, "It's called Jesus' Feet." I said, "Are you sure?" It was actually called Walking the Bible. It's more trying to decipher what customers are sure the title is and what the title actually is. This year we had a woman who ... It was Christmas- time. The store was packed. She bought her books. She left. She comes back in three minutes later, and says, "Did you hear that?" Everyone is like, "No." She says, "Good. I just hit the building."
SD: So why did you move to Vermont?
JL: Cause we got tired of living in New York. I'd lived in New York as a kid until I was 8, and then we moved to Long Island, and then I went to Columbia. I just stayed on the Upper West Side. You know New York at that point . . . it was the early '90s. I'd lived there a long time and I found myself increasingly less patient with the homeless and instead of wanting to help them, I would want them to just get out the way. And that's not how I wanted to be.
We came to Vermont on a long weekend and just loved it and thought well let's do some investigating. And we just looked at some houses. Well, six weeks later we bought this house. We don't agonize over decisions. Either we don't make them at all or we make them very quickly.
SD: What was the biggest gig you've ever done? Did you make thousands of dollars?
JL: I made a couple thousand in Columbus [Ohio] in this gay bar. It was a big club and I was the headliner and I had an hour. So that was really fun. Then I did a couple college shows. One was at Vassar, a couple at the University of Illinois. The Caroline's gig was probably the most crowded I'd done in New York. It was a real Caroline's show, not a pre-show. It was their gay-pride show. I was on with some pretty big names.
SD: How can a person who has the temperament to do stand-up comedy also serve on a planning commission? It seems like one moves very fast and the other moves v-e-r-y slowly.
JL: Planning and I ... it was boring. Ninety percent of planning is just dull. There were a couple of guys on the commission who were very, very funny, so I would go for the laughs. And we would all go for the laughs in the meeting. It was also a good way to diffuse tension in a meeting. There can be a lot of tense issues if someone feels like they are not going to be allowed to build their house where they want to build their house. I would come home from meetings and say to Elizabeth, "Oh, I got the best laugh."
SD: How did you become a planning commissioner?
JL: It came out of being a facilitator at a community-planning event. I was invited to apply for a spot on the planning commission.
SD: And how about Charlotte Rescue?
JL: I loved medicine but didn't want to go to medical school because of chemistry. I took a first-responder class in 2001 and an EMT class in winter, 2002. What I liked was learning about how to make something immediately better.
SD: Do you get to drive super-fast on Route 7 in an ambulance?
JL: No one drives super-fast up Route 7 anymore.
SD: Do you think being funny can be taught?
JL: I think someone can be taught to think about things differently, to think like a comic in terms of set-up and punch line. Then they can take a story and make it funnier because they've learned to cut out the parts that don't move the story along.
SD: How do you teach people to be funny?
JL: I teach them that everything is funny if they look at it in terms of their own struggle with it. The main thing I try to do is get people to see that they are funny to begin with. I really work on presentation and the right way to write a good, solid joke.
SD: Do you have a favorite comic?
JL: I grew up listening to Richard Pryor tapes, and George Carlin. I always used to stay up and watch Johnny Carson. Now I have patience for Robin Williams . . . although he can be a little too on-edge for me. I love Ellen Degen-eres, Paula Poundstone and Margaret Cho. I'll watch just about anybody.
SD: Is the show at the Flynn going to be a family show?
JL: No. Most comics don't want to do family shows because it is too constraining. To have a bunch of 10-year-olds in there ... the parents are worried about what you're going to talk about. You don't have to worry about swearing. Comedy isn't really for 10-year-olds.
SD: Except, how old were you the first time you listened to Richard Pryor?
JL: Well, that was me