A troubled teenage past helped Annie Lederman weather the cut-throat NY stand-up circuit where she honed her craft, writes Ed Power
ANNIE Lederman learned to be funny the hard way. “I went to a school for juvenile delinquents,” says the 33-year-old, one of American comedy’s hottest up-and-comers and a huge social media star to boot. “Pretty much everyone I know is dead — except for one guy who became a cop. I couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re a fucking cop — Jesus Christ, I’ve watched you do the craziest shit’.”
Seeing friends die in front of you changes your perspective she says. Lederman, in Dublin this week for the Vodafone Comedy Festival at the Iveagh Gardens, understands second chances don’t come around often. For her “Yolo” isn’t a millennial catch-cry. It’s a warning from her childhood in a sketchy neighbourhood of Philadelphia.
“When you grow up the way I did, and see what happens to people…We were into drugs and dealing and drinking. We were bad kids and they put us together, which was a terrible idea. I’ve had friends die of heroin overdoses and in motorcycle accidents. Really, a lot of excess. You see how things can go wrong and you want to get out of that.”
Off-duty comedians can be frustrating company. They appear often to be rationing their personality. When you’re paid to be funny, why give chuckles away? Lederman is different: A little toned down compared to her stage persona of frazzled Gen Y-er, perhaps, but nonetheless sharp-edged and irreverent. She’s candid, too, about her struggles breaking into the cut-throat New York stand-up circuit. Nothing came easy.
“It’s scary. Sometimes I still get scared. My very first open mic in New York I blacked out. I don’t remember anything. I had written a set-list which I dropped on the way to the stage. I think I just ended up yelling at people.”
That was only a few years ago. She has come along way since. Lederman is part of a generation of comedians that has cannily utilised social media as a brand extension. Lederman is hilarious on YouTube, even funnier on Twitter and Instagram. But is it exhausting to have to constantly feed the social media beast? It must feel like being on stage all the time.
“It’s actually a little easier on social media,” she says. “People are more likely to click on a thing and ‘like’ it than really laugh and give it up to you in person. I don’t feel that much pressure. There are times when, if I haven’t tweeted for a few days, I feel I have to throw something out there. A lot of people refuse to do anything on stage that they’ve already done on Twitter. For me, it helps to think of ideas and get jokes out.”
She recently relocated to Los Angles from New York and has been struck by the differences between their comedy cultures. New York is where the stand-up aesthetes go; in LA everybody is just trying to get noticed. Being funny is a means to an end.
“New York is cut-throat but I like that — I felt I was fighting all the time. It’s like a battle. In New York you have an opportunity to perform many times a night. Me and my friends would perform three to five times in the same evening, running around bombing every time. It really sensitised me to not doing very well.
“Once you can handle that it gets better. No one starts funny: Being funny at a party is very different to being funny on stage — to telling people you are going to be funny. There’s an expectation there. When you’re the funny one at a party, nobody is expecting it. There’s an element of surprise you don’t have in stand-up.
“New York is more purist. The majority of people are just trying to write the best jokes. In LA there are lots of people who want to be actors and to be on TV. In their mind, stand-up is an easy way to get into that. Which is fucking crazy to me — maybe it’s easy to some people. In my experience, starting out is really difficult. Why would you think that was the easy route?”
She has lately broken into television, with a regular slot on Comedy Central’s Chelsea Handler chatshow Chelsea Lately and her own short-lived E! channel celebrity news slot, We Have Issues. Lederman is ambitious and would love to do more TV. Nobody, after all, goes to Los Angeles not to be on television. However, stand-up remains her priority. It pays the rent and keeps her comedic sensibilities sharp.
“The social media stuff is fun. It’s ultimately to support my stand-up though. Coming up with material is straightforward sometimes — but often it’s hard. When I was a waitress, it was really really easy. Now that I’m a comedian I’m in that world all the time. You can’t simply do jokes about being a comedian. It isn’t relatable.
“I used to wake up in the morning and write whatever came to mind without stopping for half an hour. And then I would try to sit down, nine to five, and as if it was my day job, and work on material. Now, if something strikes me as funny I write it down on my phone and try it that night.”
Growing up she knew she was funny but wasn’t sure she could make it professionally. As an undergraduate, however, she was informed bluntly that she really ought to embrace her calling. Given all that she had gone through at school — all the people who had died on her — she felt she had little to lose. “My dad is super funny. I used to try to impress him. At college I would make jokes in class. My professors would be like …’just go do stand-up, stop interrupting us…just get the hell out of here’.”
With America seemingly living through a real life black comedy at the moment, does humour ever feel reductant?
“Yeah, it’s weird — with all the shootings and such. I watched all the videos. I saw so many people die — the life leave their bodies on video. I watched every single video and got a bit depressed. It did feels weird to go out and perform after that. What do you address — what do you not address? You don’t want to hurt people. My perspective is that the laugh has to be funnier than it is hurtful.
“You don’t want to do something that is hurtful just to get a little laugh. It has to highlight something. So I go out there and talk about what’s going on and my experience of being depressed by it all. I think you’re allowed to do that.”
Annie Lederman performs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Vodafone Comedy Festival, Iveagh Gardens, Dublin.
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