Bobbie Oliver is originally from Covington, Georgia. She eventually escaped and made her way to Los Angeles, California where she has been a professional comedian for 24 years. I recently had a chance to speak with Bobbie about growing up in the south, life as a female comedian, life as a comedian comedian, comedy classes, and a recent controversy (hint: it ends with Point O).
AmericasComedy.Com: You posted a funny tweet the other day. It read, “it’s so cute how my family still thinks I left Georgia for comedy.”
Bobbie Oliver: Yeah, I would have left anyway if I had any sense. But comedy really saved my life, that and theater. If it hadn’t been for theater, I’d be barefoot and pregnant right now, and then comedy really propelled me to want more out of life.
AC: Did you take theater in school?
BO: I was really lucky. I grew up in Covington, Georgia, where they filmed The Dukes of Hazzard and the high school there has this amazing theater department and they require every student to take a theater class their freshman year. So after that I joined the theater program and that showed me a way out of my very conservative, religious surroundings.
AC: A question I get a lot is “coming from the south, who were your comedic influences?” And the answer I give is “well, we had televisions and record stores, so probably the same as yours, Carlin, Pryor, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby.” I’m sure those guys make your list as well.
BO: Obviously Carlin and Pryor, but my two biggest female influences were Roseanne Barr and Brett Butler. The whole time I grew up watching comedians on Carson I was such a comedy fan, but they all looked the same. It was all 35 year-old white guys and I didn’t see myself in it. But about a year before I started doing comedy they had Roseanne and Brett on the Tonight Show and that’s when it really clicked for me that, “Oh yeah, I could be a comedian.”
AC: Obviously everyone on my list were males. Growing up I got my comedy records from older male cousins and I was just never exposed to a lot of female comedians back then.
BO: Then and now, I think. There still aren’t a lot of opportunities in comedy for women. There aren’t a lot of women represented on television. An article came out recently that said of the past 48 late night performers only two were women. So I like to always say a lot about the great women who influenced me. Lily Tomlin influenced me. Janeane Garofalo was a huge influence. I think my favorite comedian right now is Maria Bamford. She is getting some exposure right now but not nearly as much as she deserves. Maria has been very good to me in this business. She has helped me in just so many ways.
AC: Someone commented recently that gays are the last group of people that it is socially acceptable to discriminate against. In the comedy world, as far as treatment and respect even from peers, it was the women who suffered longest.
BO: It actually seems to be getting worse. I’ve been doing comedy for 24 years and I can tell you it’s getting “maler,” not necessarily in numbers but in attitude. It’s getting younger. It feels like a 12 year-old frat house or being the only chick in the locker room but now all the jocks are harassing you.
AC: You are talking about the comedians here. What about the audiences?
BO: The audiences are getting smarter and savvier. They’re also getting wiser to our tactics. They know the rule of threes. They know when the punch is coming. So you really have to challenge yourself to be clever.
AC: Do you think that social media and the Internet has made the club process almost secondary at this point?
BO: Well the club isn’t the only path anymore. Today most clubs won’t have anything to do with you unless you already have a following. You really have to be immersed in comedy. I have a podcast, a web series, a book, a comedy school, I produce comedy. You have to have your hands in everything because nobody in the business is going to give you anything. You have to make your own opportunities.
AC: I always wonder about the line between comedy as an art and comedy as a business.
BO: It’s like I tell my comedy students: club owners aren’t in business because they are huge comedy fans. They’re in business to feed their families. They need to make enough money to pay the light bill and pay the staff and have some profit left over. But a lot of younger comics have a sense of entitlement and I tell them, “Nobody owes you a microphone.” And if you do get a mic, especially at an open-mic where the place usually loses money, buy something. Get a muffin, get a sandwich.
AC: You’ve mentioned your comedy school, Stand-Up Academy. I’ll be honest with you, I have always been skeptical of the notion of comedy schools. It’s been drilled in my head, and a lot of people’s heads, over and over, that the only way to get good at stand-up is to do stand-up. Do you challenge that perception?
BO: There is a stigma to taking comedy classes. But this seems absurd to me. Every actor you admire took years and years of acting classes. Tina Fey took Improv classes. Also, it isn’t classes or stage time. My students perform every week at The Ice House. We do open-mics together. And it’s important to find the right kind of class. If it’s a place that promises to make you famous, that’s obviously not going to happen. I tell my students up front if they think they are going to get rich and famous doing comedy, they might as well spend their money on lottery tickets. The odds are equally long.
AC: There is also a big streak of narcissism running through comedians or any performer really, which I think is necessary to have the drive and confidence to get up there and do your thing.
BO: I like to say that a stand-up comedian is the perfect combination of cocky shit-head and low self-esteem. We are narcissistic but we hate ourselves. If all you had was low self-esteem, you would never go to an open mic or get on stage. If all you had was cocky shit-head, you’d just be an actor. Seriously though, comedians are generally damaged people and the narcissism comes from this deep, gaping wound in our soul. It’s interesting that writers are introverts, performers are extroverts, and comedians are both.
AC: It’s kind of old news at this point, but you were very vocal about Daniel Tosh and the whole rape-joke scandal. Talk about your feelings on that and some of the defenses that have been put forward.
BO: Okay, first, a lot of people asked why I didn’t just let it drop, and I let the Tosh part of it drop after the first day. What I responded to was the backlash to the backlash that rose up. So with that out of the way I’ll address this kind of point by point.
A lot of people said this is a free speech issue and the thought police are going to come in and take your rights away. That is not the case. Nobody is going to take away your right to tell a fucking rape joke. I fully support free speech. I fully support the right to say whatever you want to on stage. Even tell a rape jokes. I have rape jokes. And for full disclosure, I have been raped, twice before I was 13, so that is another reason I’ve spoken so much about this.
So, yes, you can tell a rape joke, but then the audience gets to respond. Not necessarily verbally like a heckler. We all agree that hecklers are out of line and should be removed from the room. But when we say things on stage we get a reaction and we depend on that reaction. That’s how we get laughs and applause. When you put something out in the universe, it’s out there. That girl had every right to blog about her experience that night.
What really crossed the line was the line “wouldn’t it be funny if five guys raped her right now?” That’s not a joke. That is inciting violence. Anyone who thinks it isn’t is someone who does not associate rape as a violent act and what it means to be a woman in this society. One in four women are raped. One in 72 men are raped. So with that said just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. As comedians, we are supposed to use our power for good. We don’t bully victims, we bully bullies.
AC: Do you think as a victim of rape, or say a victim of racism in the case of the Michael Richards incident, it is more difficult to view the situation more objectively? Or does it give you even more of a right or a responsibility to speak out on the issue?
BO: I don’t let my experiences define what I think about every issue. And remember I did not come out against rape jokes per se. I’m not a fan of knee-jerk reactions to things either. What I was calling him on was the inciting violence.
AC: Right. Another thing I found fascinating regarding the backlash to the backlash was how quickly the turnaround occurred. For a day, maybe two, everyone was slamming Tosh. Everyone. Then, almost very abruptly, a wall formed. Criticizing Tosh was a big no-no, especially in comedy circles.
BO: I think when it initially happened the lines were very clearly divided between men and women. Then a lot of male comedians came to his defense and made it a free speech issue or an issue for doing whatever it takes to shut down a heckler. That’s when people started thinking ‘hey, the comedy community is saying this wasn’t so bad.’ Also a lot of women who spoke up were met with this visceral hate to the point where they backed down. So it seemed liked the comedy community was pretty much in agreement that it wasn’t a big deal.
AC: Now that we’ve gone deep, let’s lighten things up and discuss your new CD, Finally.
BO: Yes! It’s called Finally because finally after 24 years of doing comedy I released my first CD. It’s an hour-long, unedited recording of a live show I did at Flapper’s in Burbank. So it’s just me live for an hour doing my jokes.
AC: Why wait so long?
BO: People made me do it. My husband and my manager really pushed me to do it and I’m really glad they did. I love having a CD out there. It’s available on Amazon, iTunes, eMusic, and all those places where young people listen to stuff. I’m very happy with it and very proud of it.
Get Bobbie Oliver tour dates and Stand-Up Academy information at BobbieOliver.net. Get Bobbie’s new CD “Finally” at Amazon.com or on iTunes. Check out the full-length, unedited audio of this interview at Dylan Brody’s Neighbor’s Couch. Get Dylan Brody books, CD’s, and merchandise at DylanBrody.com, and of course, follow Darren Staley on Twitter @Crobama.
About the Author: Darren Staley is the host of Atari-winning podcast Dylan Brody's Neighbor's Couch, based out of North Carolina or Los Angeles. He is known in comedy circles as "Who?" or "Oh, That Guy." Darren's two biggest fears are spiders and Paul Provenza.