Rachel Helms got her start in comedy with Wilmington based comedy troupe Pineapple Shaped Lamps, and now lives in Los Angeles, CA. This interview explores her love of farts, shared lunchables, and the destruction of arbitrary gender barriers.
Me: Rachel, thank you so much for joining me for “Hey, That’s Pretty Neat.” Like Ryan P.C. Trimble, my first guinea pig for this interview series, you were also a core member of the Wilmington-based comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps when it all started six years ago. This past year PSL opened another branch in California (PSLA) under the supervision of your guiding hands and wise, doe eyes. Could we begin by telling me a bit about yourself and how you got your start in comedy?
Rachel: Comedy has always been a major part of my life in one one or another and seemed to come naturally. In elementary school, I was always pretty quick to make friends through cracking jokes and taking time every morning before class to do some stand-up. Literally, I would get to class, set my book bag down, head to the front of the room, and entertain the other kids for fifteen minutes or so before the teacher walked in. I’d do impressions, characters, write stuff on the board, and make a general ass of myself. I performed in little comedic plays for my after school program and did skits for my Girl Scouts troop. I was always deemed the “class clown” by my teachers and despite numerous trips to the principal’s office, I think they all had a soft spot for me. At least I think they did. I hope. I made life very difficult for them. No yeah, I’m certain they hated me.
Anyway, I wrote and directed my first comedic play in high school and wrote a feature-length comedy in my freshman year of college. Something about aliens invading Wyoming? I don’t know. Freshman year was a fever dream.
As far as sketch comedy goes, I’d grown up watching Saturday Night Live with my parents and always imagined how cool it would be to take the stage every week with a group of similarly afflicted people and perform for a live audience. I was drawn to the creativity, the feeling of comradery between the cast members, and the immediate gratification from the audience. I need that gratification. I’m an empty skin sack without it and performing live sketch comedy, for me, seemed like the ultimate fix. And it is, followed closely by methamphetamine.
M: I love this description of you as a kid. If we had gone to school together I would have totally idolized you and shared my PB&Js with you in the cafeteria. We can still do that sometime if you want.
I think it’s interesting that you mention being motivated by the attention and gratification that accompanies performing, because I think comedy is a rare thing that fuels the creator just as much as the audience. Acting in general is one of the most direct kinds of entertainment we have, but I love comedy so much because in its simplest form its just about making people laugh. For a profession so heavily mined with poop jokes, that’s a pretty noble goal, right? Or is your personal approach to comedy more complex than that?
R: Girl, I’d split a lunchable with you any day.
Yeah, I guess comedy can be seen as a noble pursuit of sorts. You’re purposefully putting yourself in a very vulnerable position for the amusement of others. There’s never any guarantee the audience won’t just tear you apart and eat your bone marrow. Especially if you’re not entirely confident in the material, it can feel like you’re going up in front of a firing squad.
So yeah, if you’re doing it strictly for the enjoyment of others, it can be noble in that regard but, personally, I’m not sure it’s ever as simple as that. Speaking for myself, it’s a pretty selfish drive. In my own life, I’ve always equated laughter and enjoyment from others as love, acceptance, or validation and I think that notion is pretty common among comedians.
A lot of people see comedy shows as an escape, a release, or a way of filling an emotional need and I think, as performers, comedians feel the same way. In a lot of cases I think the audience serves the comedian more than the comedian serves them. Like, the audience isn’t aware that every time I feed them, I get fed ten times over. But I’m also super hard on myself which means if the audience isn’t fed, I go starving for a week. If ANY of that makes sense.
I wish, for me, it was as simple as just wanting to make others laugh but I’m very much aware there’s a major emotional need within myself that I’m working to satiate as well. Maybe even above everything else. I wish I was the Patch Adams type, on a simple quest to spread joy and cheer to everyone but really it’s a disordered, desperate, cyclical form of self-medication. WITH FARTS!
M: Speaking of farts, I’ve found that some sketch writers are more comfortable with certain styles of comedy than others (i.e. physical, topical, political, satirical). Where do you find your sense of humor generally resides?
R: I think a lot of my humor lies in various characters ricocheting off each other. I seem to write a lot of sketches involving four to six people with differing personalities and opposing viewpoints coming together to resolve a conflict. I love when conversations get derailed, people become defensive and indignant, and by the end everyone is jumping at the chance to pummel someone. I just love watching civility break down into chaos. It brings joy to my cold, dead heart.
M: Ever since I joined PSL I’ve admired you as a writer who likes to push boundaries with your sketch comedy. Can you describe some of your sketches that toe that line and speak to why you write them? Do you do this to challenge the audience, surprise them, or just for the fun of it?
R: Oh no. Okay, let me just preface my response by saying that in the first year of PSL we were a bunch of irreverent little assholes. I think the majority of the founding members have a handful of sketches from that first year where we’re just like “WHAT was I thinking? HOW did this happen?” Which is good because it shows growth as a writer and a comedian.
And, in all honesty, I don’t think my sketches are typically all that edgy or offensive however the few that are…REALLY are. And despite all the sketches I’ve written, those few seem to stick in the forefront of people’s minds and I think because of that I gained a reputation within the group as being someone who frequently toes the line or is really into shock humor, which isn’t the case. I think there’s really only two or three sketches from me that can be widely perceived as risqué. The two that come to mind involve eating disorders and incest humor. (Pause for uproarious laughter.)
I never seek to offend anybody and I’m not a fan of humor where that’s the sole motive. I’m never out to press any buttons just to agitate people. If I press buttons, it’s usually in an effort to make some kind of social commentary. I’d rather write something that everyone can enjoy and relate to than to have anyone feel attacked or ridiculed. I might throw some playful jabs in every now and then but, for the most part, I rather not worry about anyone waiting for me in the parking lot after the show. It’s always a murder mess and I hate it.
M: There’s certainly something to be said for intention versus reception. Ryan and I talked a bit about the joy of a sketch landing versus the pain of the occasional bomb. It happens to everybody. For instance, I once wrote a questionable sketch about a ghost harassing someone on a haunted bar crawl, and on the night of the show I watched it get cut down from six pages to three because an actor accidentally skipped ahead. Before I knew it the sketch ended and people clapped in confusion, like, “I guess that was comedy? That guy touched that other guy’s butt and then it ended.” It wasn’t my greatest sketch anyway, so that was probably a hidden blessing, but that night I felt like a small animal had curled up in my chest and died.
In your experience, which sketches are you proudest of and which ones didn’t turn out quite as planned?
R: Oh god, yes. Everyone bombs at some point. There have been moments I’ve wanted to apparate out of the theatre straight into oncoming traffic, for sure. One instance, I can remember was for a sketch based off Stanley Kubrick’s legendary abuse towards Shelley Duvall during the filming of The Shining. The sketch involved Kubrick attempting to get a real, raw performance out of Shelly – played by myself – by basically spewing insults, threats, and eventually putting a gun to her head. Essentially that sketch was eight minutes of me breaking down into indecipherable hysteria and feebly swinging a bat to a completely silent audience. Turns out people get uncomfortable when bearing witness to violence against women. Lesson learned.
Another instance involved me seductively saying the line “Daddy, my panties got wet” to a room full of horrified elders. That’s the only time I’ve literally cringed while saying a line and the response was a silence only previously heard in deep space. The sketch had been bombing all the way to that point and I so badly just wanted to crawl under someone’s seat and never come out.
But I’ve had some really proud moments too. Whenever I can get I completely unrestrained response from the audience or just an audience member, those are always the best. One of my earliest sketches, The Ghost, involved a parody on Poltergeist in which a medium assists in the removal of a ghost by basically beating the shit out of him. We did a lot of good fight choreography for that sketch and, at one point, the medium straddles the ghost and repeatedly bashes his face into the floor. It was all fake, obviously, but looked real enough to where someone in the audience screamed in horror. I guess she thought we were legit murdering someone in front of her? That was the first time I got a completely unbridled reaction and I remember being really proud of that.
A good solid fit of laughter from the audience is great and when anyone is shouting “OH MY GOD,” those are always the best. I remember Baby Shower getting an excellent response. “You should have swallowed that baby when you had a chance” is still one of my proudest moments.
M: Now I’m imagining that baby quote in fancy text overlaid on a black and white picture of you. That’s the kind of stuff that lends itself to comedic legacy.
Okay, I’m going to ask this next question with some trepidation, because I know it’s often used as a crutch when interviewing women who work in most creative fields, but it’s something that comes up whether we want it to or not. Broadly speaking, stand-up comedy and sketch comedy can be a bit of a boy’s club. Do you think that women in comedy face more obstacles than men do? Have you observed these obstacles or been personally affected by them? And what would you say to women who have dreams of writing and performing but feel like something is holding them back?
R: I’ll have it cross stitched and framed, for sure.
And I totally get your apprehension with this question. A lot of being a woman in comedy – or in any male dominated field – is people asking us about being a woman in comedy. But I weirdly like talking about it. There are some major differences in the male and female experience and I always enjoy some dialogue on the matter. Maybe the more we talk about it now, the less we’ll have to talk about it later?
I think it’s a bit more difficult for women to prove themselves within stand-up and sketch comedy, yes. Everyone has to prove themselves capable of performing but it’s more of an uphill climb when you’re initially tasked with playing the role of wives, girlfriends, and romantic interests with such lines as “What?! Are you crazy?! Guys, c’mon! This is ridiculous!” fifty times in a row and there’s a lot of arm crossing that goes into it. It’s just really easy to get cast as “the straight man” a lot.
Fortunately, I feel like PSL has never really had that big of problem writing compelling female characters. I think that’s because we’ve always been a pretty close group of writers and actors that understand each other’s strengths and capabilities and delight in writing characters for one another. We’re pretty good about making sure everyone gets a fair chance to shine and a chance to prove themselves. For me, PSL has never felt like a boy’s club (more of a sexy island of misfit clown people) and I’ve always been so thankful for that. I know a lot of other sketch comedy groups aren’t as inclusive.
As for stand-up, it’s easy for people to assume “women just aren’t funny” when you have nine men on a bill and one woman and a lot of times it’s someone who’s not necessarily a ready-comedian but there to serve as the club’s attempt at diversity and an increase in female viewership. A lot of sketch groups are guilty of this too. It’s not that female comedians aren’t great, it’s that there are so, so few in a vast pool of comedians where only a handful are usually any good. If 5% of comics are women, and 5% of comics are really good, it stands to reason only a fraction of the percentage of female comedians (0.25%) will be well-received, compared to 4.75% of their male counterparts. The stereotype is reinforced and venues will continue to book accordingly. Womp womp.
As a sketch comedian, I’m afraid I don’t have much wisdom to offer women trying to break into stand-up. I guess my only suggestion would be to work like a mother****er. Work towards your goals every day, keep fine-tuning your set, write new material every day, and do everything it takes to become great. And when you’re that lone female on the bill, you’ll be ready to melt everyone’s face off and blow your ding-donged competition out of the water. Get in that 5%, guuurl.
My advice to women looking to break into sketch comedy is to find a group you mesh well with or even form your own. Once that’s done, be bold about what it is you want and be persistent. If you feel you aren’t being utilized to the best of your abilities, speak up. In my experience, there’s always someone or someones willing to work with you. Writing is also a very powerful tool. If you feel you’re not getting enough character work, write a character for yourself or work with a writer who believes in you and will write something to showcase your strengths.
So be bold offstage and, equally important, be bold onstage as well. Everything you work for will be useless if you fall flat onstage. Play around, find what works. Do what’s scares you but be confident in your choices. Be ugly, be loud, and take up space.
M: More words worth cross-stitching! Thank you for your elegant answer to a loaded question. We did it folks. I think now we can start to wind down the conversation with some easier asks. Let’s talk about your move to City of Angels. How has moving from a relatively small city to the significantly larger one impacted your opportunities in theater and comedy? And what was it like “helm-ing” the California extension of PSL? (Sorry, had to.)
R: Moving from Wilmington, NC to Los Angeles was a major transition, for sure. In Wilmington, I was performing sketch comedy regularly and doing plays every other month and felt like I’d carved out a nice little niche for myself. It was a good sized pond for my small, little, fish body and I was pretty content with how things were going so naturally I wanted to f**k it aaaallll up.
I moved to Los Angeles not to try and make a name for myself or strike gold but because it was there and why not? I was – am – young, no babies, no house, no career……well this got sad. But you know what I mean. There was nothing tying me down. And people say if something scares you, you should probably do that thing. I’m pretty sure they say that.
Anyway, there’s a lot to adjust to when moving from a smallish, relatively placid pond to what feels like an enormous, churning ocean (I’m a fish for the rest of this interview btw). In terms of theatre, I definitely feel like Wilmington is way more accessible, especially for recreational actors. Los Angeles is completely flooded with people wanting to make acting their career and most of them have extensive training and experience. They spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on workshops, classes, and headshots, and for a little guy that just wants to have fun and fart around on stage every now and then, it can be really hard to stand out against that kind of competition. Why would a director go with ‘Rachel Helms/sketch comedian who saw Noises Off once’ when they can have ‘Nataleee Rockford/fire dancer with a direct bloodline to Kevin James?’
Also, Los Angeles is massive. Like WAY too big and you may find something you really want to audition for but the playhouse is an hour and a half away. Rehearsals usually aren’t very kind to the 9-5 folk either. A lot of times, rehearsals are in the morning or smack dab in the afternoon. Also, most of the auditions I see seem to be for musicals and my singing is just offensive. So yeah. As a recreational actor, with a full time job, and no dancing or singing ability, it can be pretty hard to get on stage. As a result, I really don’t do as much theatre as I would like. Womp womp.
Comedy on the other hand is a whole different animal. There’s TONS of opportunity to perform improv, sketch comedy, and stand up around town. It’s generally pretty easy to book for an open mic night or get to be a regular at a venue. And because L.A. is so massive, you can perform the same show 20 different times all around town and have a completely different audience every time. You can really practice to perfection if you want. You also never know who’s gonna show up at these shows which is exciting too. You could perform for a cast member of Mad Men! Not Jon Hamm. It’s never Jon Hamm.
And yes, helming can be difficult but not when you have a great cook on your team!…For cooking….God, I’m so sorry.
Anyway, it’s been really, really exciting! Zach Pappas* and I always planned to start up PSLA but we just didn’t quite know how to go about doing it. PSL East is such a powerhouse, we didn’t know how to start from the ground up again. Luckily we had a secret weapon. Enter: Alexandria Hensley. She was a mutual friend of ours and once she got wind of what we wanted to do, she stripped off her clothes and dove right in. She became PSLA’s Artistic Director and soon we were holding auditions, interest meetings, writers meetings, and I was ever so pleased by how enthusiastic everyone was. There was uncertainty but the energy in the group and the excitement transported me to when PSL was a wee babe and I felt more at home in L.A. than I ever had in the two years I’d been here.
I really was amazed at how quickly people were jumping on board. I just figured in a city like L.A., who has time or energy to get mixed up in some weird sounding sketch comedy troupe? Turns out, PSLA is a very much needed outlet and a port in the storm for a lot of people out here.
The majority of our cast members are actors who made the journey out here alone. They struggle as anyone does in a big city, they’re away from their families, they’re looking for a support system, and every day they pour their heart and soul into an industry that can be SO goddamn harsh and feel almost futile. For a lot of our members, PSLA isn’t just an outlet but their support system too. We have members going through some extremely difficult times, life-altering situations, and they’re just thankful to have this in their lives and to have so many shoulders to lean on. IT’S F**KING BEAUTIFUL, MAN.
Anyway, that’s by far been the best part; hearing others express what PSLA has meant to them. It damn sure means a lot to me.
M: That really is beautiful. I think the sense of community that springs out of people creating something together is hard to describe but you hit the nail right on the head. Since moving to New York I haven’t been able to find that kind of group, but talking to you has certainly emboldened my efforts.
And it sounds like PSLA is off to a wonderful start! I wish you and the whole cast and crew all the best. Would you like to wrap this baby up by laying out your plans for 2017?
R: Yeah, before I moved out to L.A., I was told it would be about two years before I’d be fully settled in with a good group and friends and be able to call it my home. And that turned out to be very true. There was about a year and half where I was stumbling around, trying to get a hold on things, and feeling like I’d never have what I had back in NC. And that’s true to an extent but I was fortunate enough to find a group of people that ignited that spark in me again, that I can connect with, and lean on. Like you said, its that sense of community that’s so important. It definitely takes time to build that back up but once you have it, it’s pretty incredible.
As far as PSLA, our goals for this year are to continue to gain new members, get more into video production, and to eventually find a home where we can have a monthly slot and build up a solid following. We also want to try for a regular slot at UCB. That’d be pretty sweet. In terms of my personal goals, I just want to keep exploring L.A., take in all the experiences, write more, meet new people, discover new and exciting passions, and eventually own a dishwasher. That’s the dream.
M: Sounds like a perfect year to me! Rachel, thank you so much for joining me. I’m honored to have you as a guest on my dumb blog, and I wish you all the best for the new year.
R: The pleasure’s all mine, my dear! Thank you so much for including me in your blog! Keep kicking ass in New York, being your beautiful kind self, and I can’t wait to see what all you’ll do next!
*A human being composed entirely of bees who masquerades as a Hollywood actor.