In advance of her Free State Festival appearance, a Q&A with comedian and KU alumna Nikki Glaser
Nikki Glaser’s come a long way from her days as a reluctant college student at the University of Kansas, where she’d procrastinate on assignments while juggling a part-time gig at Aladdin Cafe and launching a fledgling stand-up career in Kansas City comedy clubs.
Eleven years after graduating with an English degree, Glaser’s back in Lawrence, this time as a headliner at the Free State Festival. The comedy star has appeared in 2015’s “Trainwreck,” the hit Comedy Central show “Inside Amy Schumer,” and, in 2016, helmed her own Netflix stand-up special, “Perfect,” and her own Comedy Central starring vehicle, “Not Safe With Nikki Glaser.”
Ahead of her Lawrence appearance on Wednesday, Glaser visited with the Journal-World about her early career, procrastination and civil discourse (or lack thereof) on social media.
What can folks expect from your Lawrence show?
They can expect a lot of rapid-fire jokes and honest stories and not as much raunch as maybe people expect from me. I definitely have material for everyone. I haven’t performed in Lawrence since I first started comedy, so I’m very excited about it. Just know that it’s going to be a fun show, because I’m looking forward to it, which isn’t the case with every show (laughs).
How has your approach and material evolved since your early stand-up days as a KU student?
It’s completely evolved. I think that most comedians start out mimicking their favorite stand-ups, so I was just trying to be Sarah Silverman for the most part. I was just writing one-liners and not really exploring what was going on in my own life, because I didn’t really have that much life experience to pull from.
And since then, I’ve developed my own personality and developed who I am as a comedian and as a person. My comedy is more story-oriented and more relatable. Maybe it’s not relatable for everyone, but it’s stories from my own life — personal stuff — as opposed to like, I would joke about sex but I wasn’t having sex in college. I was a big ol’ virgin, but I just knew that comedians talked about sex, and so it was a way for me to be funny.
I was trying to be Sarah Silverman and Wendy Liebman and just my heroes. It’s a really common thing to sound like your heroes, but now I feel like I sound like my own person.
Last time we talked, you mentioned that you weren’t the greatest student, relying on procrastination and SparkNotes to get by. Is working in Hollywood an extension of that B.S. artistry?
Yes! As we speak I am procrastinating on so many things that I need to do. I almost wish that Hollywood were a little bit more like college, because we had deadlines in college.
I’m at Starbucks right now trying to sit down and work on a script, and I keep getting distracted by Amazon, shopping for things that I don’t need and buying accessories for my dog that they don’t need or want (laughs). So, I wish there were some deadlines, even though in college I argued my way out of most deadlines. I would make up some sob story or just beg for an extension.
I still struggle with those tendencies to just put things off until the last second and then just have this overflowing moment of creativity or this tidal wave of, “Oh, finally I know what I’m going to be doing!” And I think that still works for me. The times where I come up with the most material are when I’m doing a show that is going to be on TV, I’m taping on a TV set or I’m about to go onstage in front of a bunch of people who’ve already seen my material, so the pressure’s on to think of something. So, sometimes I’ll think of a joke while I’m walking onstage.
If you go
What: “An Evening With Nikki Glaser,” with opening act Mike Baldwin
When: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.
How much: Tickets cost $30, and can be purchased online at www.freestatefestival.org.
The last time we interviewed you, your Comedy Central show, “Not Safe With Nikki Glaser,” had just premiered to mostly positive reviews. The show often focused on women’s issues in regards to sexuality, but was cancelled, interestingly, just a few days after the 2016 presidential election. Did you feel any sense of irony about the timing of it?
Yeah, that was a real depressing week altogether. I think it was a mistake on their part — and I would bet that they know that, too — to let us go, because it was such an important show given that we are living in a time where our rights as women are being threatened. And there’s definitely still such a stigma on sex, even though we have a president who bragged about grabbing women’s vaginas.
I think our show got caught up in a lot of politics over there (on Comedy Central). It didn’t necessarily outright get cancelled, but it was kind of forgotten about and then not picked up. It’s interesting — the timing of these things. If we were on (TV) right now, I think we would keep going, you know? It’s just a matter of what other shows are on at that time, what’s doing well for the network.
So, I hope to work with them again, but it was very discouraging as a woman in comedy to have my voice, my mic, being shut off. But I didn’t take it as like, ‘Oh, this is Trump’s America now, and we’ve got to silence this bawdy lady.” I took it as more like, ‘We’re dealing with a lot of stuff as a network, and your show kind of got caught up in all of that.’ They kind of just dropped the ball.
During the election, there seemed to be a lot of debate about the topics celebrities should and shouldn’t speak up about, with some people arguing that entertainers somehow aren’t qualified to voice opinions about political issues. What do you make that argument?
I get told to shut up and ‘stick to what I do best’ a lot on Twitter and Instagram. And I just take it as, ‘OK, well, why don’t you go do whatever job you do, and stop trying to tell me what to do?’ I think that as someone in the spotlight, however little limelight I have on me, I would be doing a disservice to not say something. I have young girls reading my feed, and I want to be a good example for them, and retweet the articles I think people need to read and be educated about. I can sometimes get very angry on there and have people get very angry back at me, and that really doesn’t do anyone any good.
We’re smart, and most of us are keeping up with all of this. And that’s who I want to hear commenting on what’s going on in the world — I turn to comedians. I like reading Sarah Silverman’s feed because she’s kind of curating this feed of things that we need to pay attention to and people we need to call, and Samantha Bee. Comedians are people we turn to. It’s so [expletive] depressing that why wouldn’t you want someone with a sense of humor to kind of filter it for you?
It’s been said that depression and mental illness is the fuel that makes comedians funny. But I know you’ve said that you’d never sacrifice your self-esteem for your work. Is comedy cathartic for you, or do you have another outlet for maintaining a healthy inner life?
I suffer with depression and, in the past, low self-esteem and an eating disorder. All those things compounded on each other could kill you. So, I have a slew of past insecurities. And I feel like a lot of people resist help for depression when they’re comedians, because they think (treatment) won’t make them as funny, but I don’t believe in that. It’s only made me funnier and be able to get more work done, because I’m not so sad.
I think when you’re depressed, you kind of see the world for what it is, because it’s depressing (laughs). If you open your eyes and you read the news and you look at what’s happening to our climate, political and literal, you can’t help but be depressed. And I think that comedians are more prone to depression because they’re just paying attention to what’s happening. Sometimes I just have to turn it all off and try to look at videos of puppies or, like, sea otters doing cute things, just so I can feel good. I think you don’t need to be depressed to be a comedian, but you can’t turn off the sadness that permeates the world, because that’s what fuels a sense of humor — because it’s too sad otherwise.
What’s next for you?
I’m developing a couple new shows. It’s a long process because you’ve got to figure out the show before you go pitch it to the network, and then they have to decide if they want it, and then they order a pilot and you make the pilot, and then they have to test it and they order (more episodes). So, it’s a long process, but I’ve got a lot of irons in the toolshed. I don’t know, I’m just combining two analogies (laughs).
I’ve got a lot of things in development right now. I have a Netflix special coming out July 4. It’s called “The Standups,” and there are six of us doing half-hour (sets). I’m really proud of the material, and it’s all new and exciting. I hope to do an hour for Netflix in the next year and a half. So, it’s just back to doing that and figuring that out. It’s a lot of self-motivated writing right now, which is always a hard process but can actually be pretty relaxing. And I don’t have to do my makeup and hair every day, which is a pain in the ass (laughs).
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I’m really interested to see how much Lawrence has changed in 11 years. I have a completely different memory of it than what it’s going to be, I assume.
I’m staying an extra day just to explore my old haunts and to go to Aladdin Café, where I used to work for three years in college, and I’m excited to eat there again a couple times. I love performing in the Midwest. My family’s coming out and they’re going to come visit, because my sister went to KU as well, so she’s coming out with her new baby and we’re all going to have a kind of family reunion in Lawrence. So, I’m really looking forward to this trip as a whole — not only the show.