Mara Wiles has lately proven herself a vital addition to Denver’s comedy scene with her quick-witted routines, devastatingly funny asides and ability to get on all the best shows.
Anyone who’s seen the Maryland native’s snappy sets will attest that she’s also got something most comedians take years to develop: a distinct, fully-formed voice. Her wry, conversational bits manage to be both self-deprecating and warm, poignant and silly, and her material is only getting better.
In addition to her frequent stand-up sets around town and her improv work (at the Impulse Theater), she also formed the LadyFace sketch comedy troupe over the summer. The group, which consists of Timmi Lasley, Chella Negro, Kristin Rand, Melanie Karnopp and Nicole Qualtieri, is presenting its “Greatest Story Ever Told…” show at South Broadway’s Spark Theater this weekend, mixing stand-up, sketch, live music, videos and special guest Jordon Doll.
We caught up with Wiles via e-mail in advance of the Saturday, Dec. 17 shows, which cost $5 and run at 7:30 and 10 p.m.
Please give me a bit of background on you, where you’re from, where you went to school, that kind of thing.
I was born outside of D.C. and lived there til I was 9. That’s why I have all this East Coast edge and flavor. We moved to Littleton and I have been here ever since. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder and got my degree in broadcast news from the now-discredited J-school, thank you very much.
How’d you get started in improv?
After college I spent the summer in Boulder, going out, serving up fajitas at Chili’s, you know — living the dream. Fall rolled around and I decided it was time to move to Denver and get a real job and start my adult life. Well, a year later I was still looking for my big-kid job and working 40 hours a week at an Asian restaurant, let’s just call it J.D. Pangs. I was going through the typical quarter life crisis many of us face after college. I was feeling kind of lost. I had been looking into taking improv acting classes for awhile because it was something I had always wanted to do, but had always been kind of afraid to try. For my Christmas present that year my aunt got me a six-week improv class with Impulse Theater. I loved it and right away was fascinated by improv. At the end of my six-week workshop I was asked to start rehearsing with the cast. I remember getting the call when I was rolling silverware at work. It is still one of the best call I have ever gotten.
What about stand-up?
I had been doing improv for about six months when I found myself late one Tuesday night on Colfax with some improv friends. My pal Vic suggested we go to the Squire to check out the open mic. I have always been a fan of stand-up was excited to see the “Meanest mic in America.” That night I remember being so impressed by all the comics that were there, well most of them (it is still an open mic). I kept saying to myself, “These guys are amazing!” I saw Adam Cayton-Holland for the first time that night and told myself that if I could do stand-up half as good as him I would like to give it a try. At the end of the night my friends Vic and Sara both encouraged me to try stand-up and I agreed with them. It had always been my secret dream to perform and I was finally was going to do it. I started writing jokes and did my first stand-up set in September of 2008 at the Impulse Theater during a variety show called Aftermass.
Where do you perform around town the most?
Now, I perform Improv at Impulse Theater two to three times a week and do stand-up at Comedy Works for the New Talent Night (on Tuesdays), from time to time at “Too Much Fun” with the Fine Gentleman’s Club, every month at the Vine Street “Arguments and Grievances” Debate show, a multitude of random hole-in-the-wall open mics throughout this fine city of ours, and of course with LadyFace.
Who and what are some of your inspirations?
I have always really loved television growing up. I would not even classify myself as a couch potato — trust me, I am very active, I have done yoga. I enjoy the medium, love a good sitcom and believe a lot of who I am is from television (I am aware of how sad this sounds). I watched a lot of Nick at Nite, Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, “Murphy Brown,” “Rosanne,” “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” anything on Comedy Central, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Saturday Night Live.” “Saturday Night Live” has probably given me the majority of my comedic influence. Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Julie Louis-Dreyfus, Steve Martin, Mike Meyers, Will Ferrell, Maya Rulodph, Molly Shannon and of course Kristin Wiig, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. They (Wiig, Poehler and Fey) are performing, writing, producing and creating these great stories and I hope that someday I could be have 1/18th of their talent and success.
Some of my favorite stand-ups are Maria Bamford, Jessi Klein, Brian Regan, Chris Rock, Jen Kirkman, Morgan Murphy, Kristin Schaal, Aziz Ansari, Ellen DeGeneres, Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. There are probably a million others I am leaving out but let’s just say I am easily influenced by funny, talented people and also a sucker for peer pressure. Flip cup, anyone?
What made you want to come back to stand-up after your first time doing it?
It was at Impulse Theater in front of my mom, my sisters, my cousin, my aunt, my uncle and most of the cast of Impulse. It was a very “safe” first time. Everyone there was super supportive and was probably a lot nicer then they should have been. I cringe when I think of some of my early jokes. One of my first jokes was about how upset my mother was over the death of Michael Jackson. Pretty edgy stuff.
It was a total rush being on stage by myself and having peoples’ laughter echo back at me. I have always loved being in front of people and making them laugh ever since I nailed my Urkel impression back in 1992. After that first time I just started thinking, “How can I make this joke better?” That’s what kept me hooked. That desire to take something I thought was funny and make others buy into it too. My comedy grift if you will. After the first time I did stand-up I knew it was the one thing I had always really wanted to do. It is really hard to imagine my life without comedy now.
How did LadyFace form?
I have always wanted to try sketch but never really had a platform to write and perform it. I had mentioned to Chella Negro and Timmi Lasley that I had this idea for a type of variety show that was different then anything else in town. They were completely on board to give it a try. Kristin Rand, Melanie Karnopp and Nicole Qualtieri progressively came into the mix as we began to figure out what kind of show we wanted to make. Everyone in the group brings something unique; Melanie and Chella are exceptional musicians, Nicole is an excellent comic writer, Timmi has a strong theater background and Kristin is one of the most natural people I have ever seen on stage. And to top it all off they are all very funny. And with our powers combined…
Why aren’t there more female sketch troupes in Denver?
I am not sure. It is not because there is a lack of funny and talented women, ’cause Denver has that in spades. To be honest, I did not set out to have it be an “all female” sketch show, it just kind of ended up that my female comic friends were the ones that wanted to give it a try. I would love to see more sketch shows and other shows develop in Denver that are outside of the box.
Where would you like LadyFace to be in six months? A year? Your grand designs and all that?
Hopefully, in six months the group breaks up, one of us is pregnant, a few of us have developed a pretty heavy drug problem and some of us have become pet hoarders. No, I am just kidding, pet hoarding is creepy. Have you seen that show? One lady kept pigeons. The rats of the sky. Who does that?
I would love to see the show continue to grow and evolve. We are still a baby. I want us to push ourselves with our writing and our performing. Maybe in a year we are putting on more shows and getting a crowd to attend that is new to the Denver comedy scene. Personally, I want to use LadyFace as a vehicle to help develop my writing and expand on my comedic acting. Having to produce and write show forces you to be pretty disciplined with your writing. My hope is that in a year I have written a lot of great sketches, created some fun videos and hopefully written a script.
Ideally, the grand design in all this is to get famous, pop bottles and hangout with Jay-Z and Kayne. I think that is pretty obvious.
What are some of the best and worst shows you’ve had recently, and why?
Oh man, best show I have had this last year was the Grawlix’s. That was a set that I just felt awesome from start to finish. Plus, it was a huge deal for me personally because I have wanted those guys to ask me be on their show since I started doing stand-up.
Hmmm, worst show? People always ask this question and I usually don’t consider shows “bad.” More learning experiences or huddled crying sessions. I would say the toughest show I have had this last year was the Vine Street Debate Show Block Party. It was a great event but they had a comedy show follow some jam bands and the audience was not in the mood for our musing, they wanted to get their dance on. It was like 2,000 people who just wanted some goddamn bluegrass. I can’t blame that drunk ho in the front for screaming at me. Oh wait, I totally can. What an ass.
What’s one of your jokes that you think is indicative of your point of view?
I have a joke about sharing a room with my sister and how the next time we will live together again is when we are both out of our first marriage and running a bed and breakfast. I love this joke because it developed organically from my life. It shows my style of storytelling, how my imagination runs wild and it allows me to be pretty physical on stage. I have always “talked with my body,” if that makes sense. Trust me, it is not very sexual. I have just always been really physical when I tell stories. My favorite jokes are the ones where I am physical ’cause it means I am the most comfortable and loose on stage. My main goal in this comedy game is to be as honest on stage as possible. I think people really respond to seeing a performer put themselves out there and I want to constantly do that.
John Wenzel is an executive editor of Reverb and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. He is the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum) and maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles and band names @beardsandgum.