Rachel Feinstein is hard to pin down. Her name screams Jew, but she’s not all that Jewish. She’s a woman, but she talks like a man. And she’s young, but she has the stage presence of a seasoned veteran. Rachel was a finalist on Season 7 of Last Comic Standing, and has appeared on TBS’s Just for Laughs, Live at the El Rey and Russell Simmons’ Presents. Her painfully honest style is instantly endearing, and her new album Thug Tears (Comedy Central Records) is not one to miss. I recently talked to Rachel about a host of topics, including being a female comedian, Judaism and the comedy goldmine that is her parents.
When did you realize comedy was something you could actually do for a living?
I’d like to say I had all of these choices, like I was one of these people who could’ve been a scientist or a doctor and made a noble decision to leave it for the arts, but I just—I never even took my SATs. I never started a normal career path. And it didn’t feel like an option for me because I did so badly in school. So, I guess, pretty quickly I realized that was possible, although I did a lot of odd, weird jobs before I started doing standup. But I was fired from them all. [Laughs] So I ended up doing comedy full time. The only job I really kept for any amount of time was being a babysitter for an autistic child. I always have the idea that I’d like to do something to help out autistic kids, or something like that. That was the one other thing I was able to do with myself that was meaningful other than stand-up.
I always find female comedians interesting because when we talk about them, we always find ourselves saying female comedian, and not just comedian. No one would ever call Louis C.K. a male comedian; he’s just a comedian. How do you feel about the way female comedians are viewed? Do you think they’re equally respected?
I think things are changing a lot right now. There are just too many strong women out there to ignore. A lot of times they’ll bring you up on stage and say, “We have a female comedian. We have a lady comic,” like it’s a wacky experiment. So you do here stuff like that a lot. You do get some absurd statements that are made to you. But if people are really looking around, there’s a ton of female comics that are really funny and strong. So it’s getting harder to ignore. Hopefully, soon it’ll be comics. It’s really not a wacky thing that some of us are women. Things are rapidly changing because there are so many strong female comics that are very different and don’t talk about the same things. So hopefully things will keep changing.
You’re obviously very personal onstage, which I admire in a comedian. Are there any personal things you won’t discuss in your act? Any lines you won’t cross?
No, not really. I definitely feel guilty about some of the things I say because my personal life involves other people’s personal lives. Like, I have a joke about a guy I was dating: he had these sheets—these Playboy sheets—when I first met him, and how he cockblocked himself with his sheets. These absurd douche linens. So I do this joke and it ends up online, and all his friends from law school are mocking him for being such a douche who would ever buy Playboy sheets. And I’m sure he would rather that I didn’t expose the douchery of his past, and my mother would probably rather that I don’t mock how she wants to be black. So I do sometimes feel guilty about exposing other people when I expose myself, but at the same time, I think people that are with comedians or dating comedians or parents of comedians just have to learn to accept it because it’s just too hard—you know, my life revolves around these relationships. So it’s kinda part of the deal.
You discuss your parents a lot on the album. Would they prefer that you have a different style of comedy? Maybe not as dirty?
If they do, they wouldn’t say it. I mean, sometimes I think I’m perceived (that way) because even when I’m discussing something clean, I throw, like, a rogue “fuck” in there for some reason. And I think that’s something I should probably adjust because sometimes I’m just discussing my mom wanting to be black, or some other subject that’s not necessarily a filthy subject, but I will sort of involuntarily curse. Sometimes I feel like a “fuck” just punctuates a point properly, but it’s probably something I should do less of because even when I’m discussing something that’s not inherently dirty, it can come off that way. Also, a lot of the time when I’m discussing sex, I’m discussing my own awkwardness around it—like, my sort of inability to talk dirty or be whorey. It’s interesting because when it comes to sex, I’m sort of traditional and neurotic in many ways, but the act of discussing it itself is sort of dirty. So all that being said, I don’t think my parents would tell me if they thought it was too dirty. I got a lucky set of parents. I mean, my dad was a blues musician. He had a band called the Vomitones. My dad has a very weird, very dark sense of humor.
You’re based in New York, and you mention on the album that you’ve performed in places like Alabama and Vegas. Does your brand of humor translate across the country?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. You know, you’ll get crowds that’ll just stare at you and think you’re a weird, suspicious freak, and others will really relate to you. But it does surprise me. It can’t be mapped out geographically. It absolutely just depends on the crowd and the room and often a simple thing like how a comedy club is set up. You know, do they throw out people who are really loud? Drunken morons: how much nonsense is the club letting in? But sometimes you’ll get a crowd that’s surprisingly cool and open. There are so many things that happen in a room and there are so many factors that it’s hard to sort of map it out geographically. But there are definitely crowds that don’t like me and don’t get me. I try to not internalize that, but I always do.
In my experience, I’ve found that when female comedians discuss sex, even if they’re not going for it they end up a lot of the time getting that shock reaction from the audience. Does that ring true to you? I mean, in your opinion, is there a big difference between male comedians discussing sex and female comedians doing so?
Well, it depends on the crowd, but I do think a lot of the time it surprises people. When I first started, I think I came out a lot trying to kind of, “I’m gonna be taken seriously” or “I’m gonna do things this way.” I think if you come from a kind of a warm and human and honest place, most people will respond to that. They’ll give you a break when you’re coming on a night when it’s tough to follow. But I find that even dumb people with dumb ideas or ignorant ideas or prejudiced ideas about the world and women or whatever—you know, if they’re in a lively mood, they like to laugh. So more and more I’ve realized that, when doing standup, if I come from a honest place and try not to expect people not to like me, they’ll open up. Everybody wants to be entertained, and ultimately that’s where I try to come from.
One of the things I found listening to your album is that it’s not very easy to pigeonhole your style. You do voices, characters, ethnic humor, dirty humor, some slightly absurdist humor—and you do it all very well. Was this something conscious on your part, or did you sort of find yourself naturally expanding your talents?
I guess I just talk about what makes me laugh. Most of my comedy is storytelling and personal experiences and story-based. The biggest thing, though, is that in the last year, I’ve learned to just commit to things and tell a story. If it’s interesting to you or meant something in your life, just keep telling it and you’ll find the funny in it and it’ll come across. So I’ve learned to not let go of things that are weirder or stranger or more embarrassing. There are definitely a lot of things on that album that I find embarrassing or jarring. But I kinda got to this space where I was, like, “Fuck it.”
I think that one of your best qualities is that, even though you discuss your heritage and you discuss Judaism to some extent, you really seem to transcend stereotypes. You’re well adjusted and you don’t seem to have that classic Jewish neuroticism. I wouldn’t call you a Jewish comedian, per se; you’re a comedian who happens to be Jewish. How do you see your heritage or Judaism as part of your act?
Well, I didn’t come from a religious home, so I don’t have a lot of the stereotypical pressures that some Jewish women would have on them. My parents didn’t push me to date Jewish men. As I talk about in my act, my parents are absurdly liberal. If I brought home a Nigerian lesbian—anything goes in my family. [Laughs] So that, I think, comes out in my act because I didn’t grow up with those stereotypical pressures. My mom converted. She wasn’t really a stereotypically Jewish mom, but she’s more into the sort of social Jeweyness that my dad is, like a lot of converts. My parents are more sort of social and political liberals, and not all that religious. And neither am I, so I think that having my father’s Jewish side of the family definitely informs my sense of humor. But it’s more about how they were as people than Judaism itself or growing up in a strict Jewish home, which I didn’t. However, because my name is so aggressively Jewish, people react to me as if I am this raging, glorious Jew. [Laughs] but my background isn’t super-religious, so I obviously don’t come from that perspective.
What comedians do you admire the most, and who pushes you to continually improve?
You know, I just saw a clip on YouTube with Louis C.K. that I can’t stop thinking about. He was talking about George Carlin and he was discussing writing and being fearful when you first start something: that uncomfortable space you sort of go into as a comic when you do a bit that’s new or vulnerable or not ready. He was talking about kind of sitting in that space and staying in it even when you don’t get the reaction that you want. It was really powerful for me. I know that you’re always supposed to write, but there was something about the way he explained it—you know, all comics, I think, we want people to like us, and that’s definitely an important part of why I do standup: wanting people to accept me, wanting people to like me, wanting to charm them. So I could really relate to him and was really inspired by him, because he does stuff that at first is really awkward and people get offended by it, but he just keeps going with it, and he talks about how important it is to just stay in that space until something gets good.
To read more about Feinstein, visit her website at rachel-feinstein.com. Her debut album Thug Tears released digitally on Tuesday November 29th. She’ll make three stand-up performances in December at the Kevin Meany Christmas Show, the Congregation Agudath in Caldwell, New Jersey, and New York City’s Gotham Comedy Club. You can also check her out on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @RachelFeinstein.
Filed Under: Featured
About the Author: Daniel Berkowitz is a Los Angeles-based graduate student focused on nonfiction writing and popular culture. He's currently working on a book about how comedy affects democracy. He also really likes baseball. Follow him on Twitter @DanIsPrettyCool.