INTERVIEW by CATHERINE LYONS | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of RACHEL FEINSTEIN
Originally from the “ruthless streets” of suburban Washington, D.C., Rachel Feinstein started in comedy at 17 years-old in New York City. From her stand-up performances on Comedy Central to her interviews with Genuine as “Ice Cold Rhoda,” the gangster grandma, to her appearance as a contestant on “Last Comic Standing,” Rachel is making a name for herself in comedy circles far and wide. What sets her apart? When I had the opportunity to see her at the Punchline Comedy Club in San Francisco during SF Sketchfest, her impersonations won over the crowd, as well as her ability to turn those awkward moments we’ve all experienced into hilarious incidents. She may be in your town soon — she’s kicking off a tour to promote her new album, “Thug Tears.”
Did you have an act that you would do growing up, or certain jokes you would tell?
I always used to imitate people as a kid. My friends would always ask me to do the bagel face, this mangled, gnarled thing I used to do with my face. They would request it in kindergarten.
[laughs] Does that still come in handy?
Oh yeah, I mangle my face all the time. It still comes in handy.
I also had a teacher who had really thin lips, so in my class photos I did this face with her thin lips. [Ms. Dellastious] looked like a Barbie doll and I had this gnarled big Jew fro. I would try to imitate her handwriting, her voice. She would bring me up to the front of the class and tell me to do the “Ms. Dellastious.” She was encouraging. She let me sit and work on her desk. I would be curled up by her and work in my workbook. It was weird. I just wanted to be Ms. Dellastious.
Tell me about your first comedy show after you moved to New York at 17. What were some of the subjects of your skits?
I went up at this bar where they were doing some sort of comedy show. I just rambled on and told stories from my life. I would tell these long-winded funny stories. I know for sure I was awful.
I believed I did really well because I found it so exhilarating. But really I went on too long and they had to wave me off. I wasn’t projecting properly and no one understood me.
[My friends] explained to me what went awry. It took me a while to figure out myself on stage. I watch old tapes and find it traumatizing. I think, “Ugh, what’s that thing you do with your hands?” or “What’s with your verbal tick?” It’s difficult to watch myself and not be disgusted.
What happened after that very first, somewhat awful show?
I did open mics, opened for various people. Todd Barry and John Heffron took me on the road a lot. I had various people who were kindly toward me and gave me good advice. I was a babysitter during the day and worked at a bar on the weekends. It took me a long time.
It was nice to finally be able to quit my day job in 2009, right before I got my first Comedy Central special in 2010, and say, “I’m a comedian,” and not feel like you’re lying. “Last Comic Standing” came off of that, so that was cool. That was a high point. I was actually able to be in the moment when that came out.
You said you had a lot of people who gave you good advice when you were starting out. What was the best advice you received?
Greg Geraldo told me to stop trying to sound so intelligent. Brevity is clarity. I was insecure about not having a college education. I wanted people to perceive me as intelligent. I was trying too hard to sound like I knew what I was talking about. I probably used the words wrong, too.
I ramble on; I tell these stories. I had to shorten my jokes, and those are harder when you’re a storyteller. Don’t be married to every part of the story — be willing to shed things and find the funniest parts of what you’re saying. The best stuff is always sprinkled with humiliation. A lot of jokes start with something that makes you uncomfortable, for you or someone else.
I try not to have an agenda. Don’t try to prove a point. Start with what you think is funny. Then you’ll touch on points you want to touch on. Don’t start off with the message, because then you’ll sound heavy-handed.
What was your big break that catapulted you to The Onion and Comedy Central?
Of the things that have happened to me, “Comedy Central Presents Rachel Feinstein” was definitely the most important. I didn’t have a manager or an agent, so it was cool to know it was just me. I did my stand-up routine in front of a live audience.
How was that?
Afterward, I thought, “Why are doing that dumb thing with your arm?” or “Why did you say ‘you know’ ten times in a sentence?” And “Good voice, dummy. What a ridiculous voice you have; you need to be put down.”
If someone writes something negative, I internalize it.
I was going to ask you about some of the worst insults you’ve gotten, but I don’t want to put you through that!
No, no, let’s see. There’s:
“Go back to the kitchen.”
“Shut up and go back to the kitchen.” If they knew my lack of experience, you wouldn’t want me to go back there. I never started there. I can’t cook at all.
One just said: “Man voice.” I thought, “Oh my god, do I have a man voice?” Then it’s in your head for the next week or so.
Then there was “Last Comic Lying Down.” Someone posted pictures of someone who looked exactly like me in porn. That was upsetting because he was tweeting it. So that was distressing, and people retweeted it.
There’s always the classic American “You suck.”
Where do you get your inspiration for your skits? Does your own grandma have a penchant for rap music? Can you give me an example?
Things that happen to me in my life or people I know. An uncomfortable moment, weird thought, anything where my initial instinct is, “This is upsetting or alarming or shocking.” Often, there’s something you can use there.
And what about the “Ice Cold Rhoda” skit, specifically?
That started from a combination of my grandma and my acting coach, who was my mentor when I moved to New York. She would also say really crazy things about men, like, “They’re just like a cat; they meow to get in and meow to get back out again.”
The idea behind Rhoda is she knows her shit. She calls [the rappers] out on being foul and laments how it used to be. She’s the matriarch of the hip hop community. I’ve always loved hip hop. I’ve always been surrounded by white people wanting to be urban — I get that from my parents. My dad is a civil rights lawyer and my mom was a social worker. They are a lot of that hip-hop urban Jew whatever. Rhoda is a product of that.
And what would Ice Cold Rhoda say about a Rachel Feinstein comedy routine?
Oh, I really like that question. Hmm…I’ll have to get back to you on that, I’m not that clever.
In an e-mail sent later:
Ice Cold Rhoda would say that my act is okay, but I could be the truth if I had more jokes about haters, the Illuminati, and early bird specials.
So, I was talking to my editor earlier (he’s Jewish), and he was interested in hearing your thoughts about Jewish humor. What makes your humor “Jewish,” in your opinion?
My dad, Hurricane Howie, started out as a civil rights lawyer; now he plays blues. Religion was always something around me, but I’m not religious. There was that kind of influence and humor. I also have this aggressively Jewish name, so it’s definitely something I think about.
But, you know, my dad would walk into the kitchen and say, “It reeks of Jews in here, you’ve got to do something about it.” As a civil rights lawyer, he would get these wildly anti-Semitic things said to him when he would prosecute in the South. I think those really inappropriate jokes are the ones that I find the most funny. It was my dad’s way of dealing with things that were said to him.
There was one incident of a joke I made about jingers (Jew fingers). I said something about how he would take “anything he could get his jingers on.” This couple sent me a long letter about how they didn’t approve. Of course, I sent a long letter back because I want everyone to like me. I squashed our beef. I made the argument that it was a matter of taste. It was just something about the term “jingers” that they really didn’t like.
What is your favorite form of comedy? Writing? Developing a character for skits? Or good ol’ fashioned stand-up?
My ideal career would be doing stand-up and have a sketch show, an hour special, I don’t know where, but wherever will have me.
I don’t see stand-up as a means to an end. I would love to do it for the rest of my life. I want a good funny role anywhere. I love to develop those characters. That would be a great life, to do those on a larger scale.
What’s next for you? What is in the future?
I’m going to Cleveland over Valentine’s Day. I’m on a tour to promote my new record, “Thug Tears.” It’s available on iTunes.
Do you enjoy the touring aspect of this career?
Sometimes I like going on tour and sometimes I don’t. When I go to San Francisco for Sketch Fest [in early February] it’ll be great. It’ll be a blast. There are other places that are foul and lonely and awful. There are weekends where I’ve never felt so isolated.
But the other weekend I was in Austin and it was awesome. The crowds were great and came out to really promote comedy. Then there are definitely places I go and say “Why, why???” It depends.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook, subscribe to me on YouTube, go to my website: www.rachel-feinstein.com. Come to my shows. Send me nice notes. Anyone who writes me, I write them back. Oh, and I accept trinkets.