Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Geeking Out with...Maria Ciampa

by Pam Victor

“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like me. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a Poodle and in pithier version on the Women in Comedy Festival blog.

Maria Ciampa juggles a lot of balls in the air. (Mmmm…balls.) A hard-working stand up comedian in and around Boston (check out her list of up-coming shows!), Maria also does improv comedy, teaches yoga, is writing a book, has a nerdy day job, does commercial work, and – last but certainly not least – co-produces the Women in Comedy Festival, which is taking place March 21- 25, 2012 and features 27 shows, 225 comedians (including the headliners Wendy Liebman and Carol Leifer), 11 workshops, and 1 free headliner panel. Don’t applaud yet, folks, there are still more balls in the air: Maria co-hosts the Women in Comedy Podcast, produces the hilarious web series Interviews with My Husband which features her scene-stealing straight man husband Justin Carr, and Maria also hosts Stand Up Sundays at ImprovBoston

You may now applaud for all of Maria’s balls.


PAM VICTOR: My first question always has to do with your comedy trajectory. When did you first do comedy? What was your path?

MARIA CIAMPA:  I first did comedy when I was about 8 years old.  My sisters and I made comedy sketches at home and recorded them with my father's old-tyme camcorder. We'd do feminist commercials for Lee Press On Nails and racist commercials for Chinese food.

PAM:  Did you do improv in high school or college?

MARIA: I auditioned for an improv group at Smith College and was rejected.

PAM:  I have to confess. I did a pre-interview with your husband, Justin Carr, and he takes full responsibility for your rejection. As he tells it, you didn’t get into the SIKOS, “most likely because of me, since I'm not a woman, which makes her a breeder. Reverse sexual preference prejudice or something like that. Either that or she just wasn't any good yet.”

MARIA:  HA! Love it. 

PAM:  I think the "yet" is my favorite part. Shows his total belief in your abilities.

MARIA:  Aw! True love.

PAM: So when did you get the improv bug?

MARIA:  I started doing improv after college. I was taking an acting class at Harvard Extension School because I worked at Harvard Business School.  The instructor was a director at ART and kept laughing at my characters, when I was really just trying to do them straight. She told me to go take improv classes. So I took them at IB [ImprovBoston] and IA [Improv Asylum]. I joined The Tribe, run by Michelle Barbera.  Then I was invited to audition at IA, where I was on the Mainstage for a few years.

 PAM:  What was that first improv experience like for you?

 MARIA:  Wonderful! I remember from my very first class feeling like I landed in something that I'd always done and never knew existed outside me.

PAM:  Beautifully said. I get that. What resonated with you? (As an inhabitant of western Mass., I have to say the word "resonate" every day, so thanks for helping me get in my quota.)


I loved this sense of play, learning there was a system to it. I loved that it was okay for grown up people to communicate in a more open and honest way, and find games in that communication.

PAM:  What element about scene work grounds you or helps you to be a better improviser? I mean, are you a character person? Someone who follows the game? Relationship?

MARIA:  Relationship, definitely. I like playing things real. I like following the relationship to see where it goes.

PAM:  I think I will find that most people trained in Boston, particularly under Will Luera's reign, play that way.

 MARIA:  Yes! Will's a genius.

 PAM:  Absolutely. I interviewed him a couple nights ago. Brilliant stuff.

Are you still performing improv?

MARIA:  Only now and then.  I keep thinking - I need to get back into it in a more organized way!  I'm busy with stand up, but stand up is different.

PAM:  You started in improv (after your childhood career in sketch), but then you stepped across the railroad tracks to stand up. How did that change come about?

Maria Ciampa,
standing up
MARIA:  I think it was a combo of things. I was looking for more of my own voice, and I found stand up challenged me to do that. I liked that.

PAM:  As a woman who does stand up and improv, can you tell me about your experience in both and how they reflect and differ from each other?

MARIA: Both have this sense of creating something new, which I like.  In improv, it's collaborative and surprising on the spot.  In stand up, it's less collaborative and you never know if you will be surprised in a good way or a bad way on any given night.

I like that you can keep what you create in stand up - you can keep those jokes,  for probably way too long, and try to re-create them over and over. You can do that with improv too, translate it to sketch, but the challenge is even more so in stand up because it feels more that it's yours. In stand up, it's up to you to bring it; whereas in improv, you can lean on scene partners and find something new that way.

PAM:  But they're totally different skill sets, aren't they?

MARIA:  Yes, I think they are.  I'm still learning how different they are.

PAM: I've never really done stand up, so I don't know what goes into the stand up training.

MARIA: Stand up training! Ha! There are classes, but it's just - go out to open mics, fall on your face, feel bad, remind yourself never to feel bad, repeat.

PAM:  I imagine stand up training involving a lot of self-flagellation. Stand up seems so VULNERABLE to me.

 MARIA:  You got it, lady. Well, depends on how you choose to do it, too.

 PAM:  To me, it seems like you stand up in front of strangers, crack open your chest, and invite them to laugh at the contents.

MARIA:  Yes - those people who tell true stories, though, really open themselves up - that's the most vulnerable way to do it. And that's a fairly new style in the stand up world.

PAM: No offense, Maria, but you seem to be one of the happier, more well adjusted stand-up comedians I know.

MARIA:  I try! I try!

PAM:  Would you like to speak to the adage that “stand-up comedians had difficult childhoods...improvisers grew up in loving homes"? (Or however that adage goes.)

MARIA:  Now I'm seriously laughing.

I don't know anyone who had a totally perfect childhood. Even in a loving home, there is room to find jokes about something.

Maria Ciampa,
still standing
PAM: I sort of am implying that there is some sort of self-love - or enjoyment in people - that improvisers tend to have. While most stand up comedians are, I'm being biased here...but I think Maria Bamford is a good example of a very funny person who seems broken inside.

MARIA:  Yes, I can see that.  I think maybe there is some truth to it. But I don't think you have to be broken to do stand up. I think you need to be pretty strong actually. Or just used to being broken over and over, which makes sense?

I am so interested in coming at stand up from a different place.  From a place of, “Here's what I have to offer, take it or leave it.” Not, “Love me love me!” Amy Sedaris recently said something on the WTF podcast I just loved. She said, "I do whatever I want.  And some people seem to get really angry about that."

PAM:  Yeah, I heard that episode. (Speaking of broken but hilarious people.)

MARIA:  Is she?

PAM:  ::sigh:: I think she and David both try to heal themselves through comedy. But that's just my opinion.

MARIA:  Yes, well, it's the same with me then. One of the most honest conversations I've had about this was with the brilliant and hilarious Jennifer Myszkowski.

 PAM:  Love her! One of my hometown peeps. How do you know her?

MARIA:  From when I was doing comedy at Northampton Center for the Arts.  She was in the audience, and she laughed really loudly at a “Golden Girls” reference. Then we met after the show and I fell in love.

 PAM:  Hahahaha! Oh good. As the producer of that very show at the Northampton Center for the Arts, I'm glad I was able to facilitate comedy love.

 MARIA:  You always do, Pam!

PAM:  Awww. 

Do you think there should be limits to comedy material, either in improv or stand up?

MARIA:  No and no! You gotta be free with it all, even and especially if it offends.

PAM:  I’ve seen that some comedians (like Louis C.K., who we all agree is brilliant) can write and deliver material that would get other comedians (e.g. Tracy Morgan) in a load of doo-doo. How do you walk that line?

MARIA:  I wish I knew. I’m working on it. I think you have to ask yourself: What is it that I'm saying here? Why am I saying it? Why is this true? Why is it funny?
But then sometimes that just too much thinking, so I do a joke about a carrot with balls.

PAM:  Hahaha! I think it also depends on your audience. I live in a place with people who have a pretty strict sense of political correctness. Although it's fun to poke at the boundaries, I'm still rankled sometimes that I don't get to do my deaf retarded girl character.

MARIA:  HA!   I also think that if you are coming from a place (and this is where Maria the yogini speaks) of right thought and right speech, then really all that means is that you are being honest about why something is funny to you, so there you go.

PAM:  Given your answer, would you care to complete the following statement that someone else suggested I ask a comedian? “The funny thing about rape is…”

MARIA:  How absurd it is. Humans come in a form where one can mess up another in such a gross way.  Gross! Absurd! And to top it off, in another context, the same thing is awesome.  WEIRD.

PAM:  To be honest, I don't think rape is that funny. I really was reluctant to ask that question. But that's just my personal boundary. I can imagine that a comedian and audience members could find it cathartic to joke about, perhaps empowering. But you're right. It's really weird.

MARIA:  Yes  - I agree, it's cathartic - and that's such an important part of comedy. It's a way to have an open dialogue about the taboo.

PAM:  I guess that brings up what your experience has been as a lady comedian in both improv and stand up. ImprovBoston is SO inclusive! A big, warm, loving family…

MARIA:  Weird segue, Pam. Weeeiiird!


MARIA:  Now that's what's funny about rape. Right there.

PAM:  Well, we were talking about vaginas. That was the segue in my brain: rape, vaginas, ladies, comedy...

MARIA:  “So, you're a lady who could potentially get raped. How is it being a lady in comedy?”

PAM: LOL! Hahahahaha!

MARIA:  Yes - IB is a wonderful place, a home to me and so many of my friends, the community of people that has created so many opportunities for me to try new jokes. I think back to the Bastards, Inc. shows - one of the funniest group of improvisers - and they would put up stand ups on their show. They gave me a ton of opportunities to try out bad jokes. And now Stand up Sundays! [Every Sunday at 9pm at ImprovBoston, Maria and Dana Jay Bein host Stand Up Sundays featuring stand up comedians from Boston and beyond.]

PAM: I guess I’m wondering if you've found more or fewer obstacles in the stand up world than in a vagina-owner, I mean.


PAM:  To be blunt, are stand up comedians sexist assholes?

MARIA:  I have found more sexism in the stand up world, yes. I think it's because the philosophy of improv is to trust, which is not a foundational thing in stand up. But I've found plenty of sexism in the improv world too.

WICF founders featured with 2011 performers (L-R): 

Elyse Schuerman, Rachel Dratch, Myq Kaplan, 
Kurt Braunholer, Maria Ciampa, Kristen Schaal, 
Michelle Barbera, Morgan Murphy and Jen Kirkman
PAM: That leads – awkwardly, of course, thankyouverymuch - to our discussion of the Women in Comedy Festival! First of all, thanks to you and your co-founder, Michelle Barbera and co-producer Elyse Schuerman. I think I sent you guys a note after the first festival, telling you how proud I was to know you and that you had created that festival, and I still feel a lot of gratitude towards you three in relation to the festival. Not from a personal perspective, but rather in relation to the comedy world as a whole. I personally think WICF is extremely important right now and potentially can alter – for the better - the position of women in the comedy world (as well as possibly alter the space-time continuum but that’s another article). Tell me about what lead to the founding of the festival? What compelled you to create it?

MARIA: My friend and co-producer Michelle Barbera was like, "Hey let's do a bunch of shows that feature women more prominently." And I was like, "Brilliant!"  So we did that.  Also we both have been feminists all our lives, which also probably lead to the founding of the festival. 

PAM: You ladies are quite clear that you encourage non-women to apply and perform, but still you’ve created a unique and much-needed showcase for card-carrying vagina owners, don’t you think?

MARIA: Yes we have!  I love that men apply too, though, for a few reasons. One, because I like to think we have created something that above all advocates for a level playing field. Two, I like men.  Three, if you are a man who is applying to a festival called Women in Comedy Festival, good job, dude.

I think WICF is not only a great showcase for all the women comedians out there, but it's also a chance at connecting in an ongoing way with men and women who want a certain dialogue to exist - during the festival there are workshops, panel discussions, and parties. And during the year, we have mini-tours, we have the WICF News Site, the blog, the WICF comedy podcast, and the ongoing connections that people make at the festival.  I've kept in touch with so many people I've met through the festival, looked them up when I'm in their town.  And people get in touch with me when they know they'll be in Boston and let me help them find stage time.  That's what I really like - this sense that the festival is creating a way to connect with other like-minded artists all over the place.

PAM: What are your goals for WICF?

MARIA: Attract talent from all over the world, in all genres of comedy, doing unique comedy that just needs a forum to be heard.  Encourage artists to keep working and creating.  Put on hilarious shows for our audiences.  Be a news portal for all things comedy.  Support WICF comedians in their own endeavors in any way we can. Continue going on mini-tours in NY and LA. There has been talk of creating a production company that connects WICF comedians with colleges, universities, and other organizations.  Attract industry and bookers from networks like IFC, Comedy Central, Late Night, ABC, NBC, AMC, FOX, any way for our artists to be seen!  On the business side, secure sponsorships and partnerships with like-minded organizations so WICF can grow as our staffing and resource needs continue to expand. Keep this sense of friendliness and and accepting community that we have established.

PAM: I understand that submission doubled this year. (Congratulations!) What troupes/performers are you really excited about scoring this year?

MARIA: All Girl Revue, Arden Myrin (Chelsea Lately), Sue Galloway (30 Rock), and so many more! [Check out the full list of the line up this year.]

PAM: Let’s talk about the inherent comedy of yoga. As a yoga teacher, can you draw some parallels you’ve discovered between yogic thinking and improv?

MARIA:  Yes!  Trust yourself. Detach yourself from the outcome. Accept what's happening now. Allow room for discovery.

Oh my, that was so much bullshit all at once.

PAM:  How do you not crack up when someone farts in yoga class?

MARIA:  I do crack up even after all these years, especially when it's a kid.

PAM:  You know where you can't crack up about farts? In the classroom. When I taught elementary school, when a kid farted, it was the WORST. I'd have to leave the classroom. Not because of the smell, but to laugh at the kid.

MARIA:  Yeah, I don't know how teachers do it.

PAM:  I find yoga classes a deep well of comic material because people tend to take themselves extremely seriously, plus people are so weird. (Plus plus, the farting thing.)

MARIA:  Yes - it's the best when someone is, or thinks they are in a place of self-inquiry.  I am there all the time, and that's how I found out I'm a total asshole.

PAM:  Ha! I didn't know you were an asshole! Congratulations!

MARIA:  Thank you. Thank you.

PAM:  So yoga is a place where you explore your inner asshole?

MARIA:  Oh yes!

PAM:  Deep.

MARIA:  Very deep.

PAM:  (Insert lower intestine joke here.)

Do you turn off your comedian brain when you do yoga, or do you also find yourself writing jokes during classes?

MARIA:  I find the stillness that yoga affords me lets me shut off the critic, so after class there's a good amount of stuff usually.  But during class, I'm a totally serious asshole.

I also write jokes as I'm falling asleep.  It's a similar quietness.

PAM: I'm just back from a yoga class. I don't think I was asshole-y enough. But that's why we call it "practice"!

MARIA:  Yep!  You gotta keep practicing, then you'll find out if you're as much of an idiot as the rest of us.

PAM: Haha! 

I deeply LOVE your web series Interviews with My Husband. Tell me about how that series got started, what inspiration you draw from to make it and – for the love of all that is Good and Just – are you going to make another one?

MARIA:  Thank you so much! I love this project. It got started because he has great answers to my questions. I once asked him if I was paralyzed from a car accident and I just wanted to die, would he shoot me dead?  And without a beat, he said, "Of course I would."

PAM:  That’s hilarious. My husband and I have a similar joke, but it involves having my lips burned off in an accident.

MARIA:  Ha! So the inspiration is our relationship and how we communicate. I am working on making more. We have a bunch of scripts.

PAM:  Speaking of Justin Carr, he made a claim and I want you to tell me if it’s true or false. Does your creative process include, “various activities such as procrastinating and watching Netflix and Hulu in bed”?

MARIA:  YES. I am not proud of this. I am addicted to the show Medium with Patricia Arquette, and there are about 17 million episodes on Netflix.

PAM: Rumor has it you’re writing a book? What is it about? (Ok. It wasn’t a rumor. It’s on the front page of your website.)

MARIA: I am!  We Are The Ciampians is a collection of stories about my version growing up just north of Boston in and Italian-American family of seven kids, with a father who was elderly my entire life, and a mother 17 years younger than him.  I say my version, because I'm sure there at nine different versions (seven kids, two parents) of how it happened, all of them true.  The stories are an extension of my live comedy. It's a tell-all!  I tell all I can remember about by my liqueur-making father, my Yorkshire Terrier-breeding mother, and my five wild sisters and one middle-child brother.

I'm pitching it to agents now, so if you're an agent reading this, lucky you. It's your big break!

PAM:  There is an elephant in the room, and I can’t ignore it anymore. Would you like to make a public statement about your hair?

MARIA:  Ha! It's true. I've never had a job as a hair model. I thought about it once, but they said I'd have to let them cut and color it and it wouldn't be up to me, and I'm too protective of my ‘fro.

PAM: I have a quick question from the Dorky Pharmacist of FacebookLand, who needs guidance in his lifestyle either towards books or buffets: In the coming apocalypse, will the zombies be more interested in brains or entrails?

MARIA:  Ha! I'm a traditionalist when it comes to zombies.  They like brains and move slowly. They are easily defeated by those of us with wits who can still move quickly.  

Maria's carrot with balls


Catch up on other improv geek-a-thons:
…with Joe Bill of BASSPROV
…Jimmy Carrane of the Improv Nerd podcast
…Susan Messing of Messing with a Friend
and many more!

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam directs, produces and performs in the comic soap opera web series "Silent H, Deadly H". Pam also writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." If you want to stay abreast of all the geek out action, like the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page!

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