Words: Michael Whitham
Image: Alexa Viscius
Megan Stalter’s debut Fringe hour ricochets between the sweet and the psychotic in the blink of a perfectly lined eye. Featuring everything from a song that never seems to start (or end) to a Q&A about her latest novel Diane’s Cunt, Stalter’s unique brand of madness is deranged and delightful in equal measure. The persona may seem delusional, but this evening of mayhem is presided over with the finely tuned skill of a woman who knows exactly who she is. I spoke to Stalter about poetry, pretend husbands and the power of self love.
“I didn’t have the money to go to L.A. or New York, so I went to Chicago which is an amazing city for comedy. Everyone is doing it to get better or because they love it and there isn’t a lot of industry watching. I did so much improv and so much stand up and I wasn’t good at it, but I was having so much fun and I thought I was really good at it. I was trying to do characters on stage and I’d be like ‘this is a mom who’s drunk and at a kids carnival….’. It wasn’t working but I would tell myself the audience just didn’t get it. That has really carried through into what I do now because I love to make fun of traits that I have. My stage persona is a woman who thinks she’s very talented, but who is very bad at all these different things.”
Stalter’s Fringe show is the perfect playground for said persona – she roams into the audience, veers on wild tangents and barks at her tech crew while trying to ‘get the show started’ for at least the first 30 minutes. “People can’t tell what’s structured and what’s improvised. I don’t think anybody would believe how much structure there is. I think some people watch it and think the whole thing is improvised because it’s so chaotic, but it’s safe chaos. Even if I’m being sassy or harassing the audience, it never feels dangerous or that they’re truly being made fun of. It’s almost like being a part of a different world where you have a crazy teacher who shouldn’t be in charge, but she is.”
There is a rare warmth and delight in Stalter’s infectious humour that lets you know comedy is deep in her bones. “My family is so funny and we always made up weird sketches and fake talk shows and music videos. Even my mom and her sister would have the camcorder and be making a bunch of silly videos. Nobody did comedy professionally but all we wanted to do is make each other laugh.”
This family dynamic fostered a longing to perform, along with something of an early competitive streak. “I’ve always wanted to be on stage and I would take any opportunity. In elementary school there was this contest where you perform a poem. Every year my mom and I would work on it and I would win every year, except for one. And the one year I didn’t win is when she got a video of it. I’m literally so disappointed in the video. The winner was this little boy named Pietro and he’s really cute. He was jumping up and down. It was one of the worst days of my little life.”
In the years since that devastating loss to Pietro, a deep confidence in her craft as a comic has changed her outlook. “I like to believe in my heart that I don’t care about competition and I try not to compare myself to others. I actually do a pretty good job as an adult not to. I think when you’re truly confident in something, you’re able to avoid that. Although, if I was in a poetry contest today as an adult, and I didn’t get high place, I probably would be a little bit sad…”
Despite her natural affinity for the silly, strange and ludicrous, Stalter’s love of the stage wasn’t always so focused on comedy. “I was actually taking an improv class to get into acting. I had been to college for different things but I really wanted to perform – I realised that’s what would truly make me happy. I thought improv would be my intro into acting but I feel really lucky to have fallen in love with comedy. I can’t imagine being an actor waiting for auditions and having to be told yes or no. When you’re a comedian you get to write for yourself. And if you’re not booked on a job, you can go do your own thing. I have had to make the path for myself in that way.”
The path Stalter created for herself is heavily indebted to the unique persona she touched on earlier. In her social media videos she plays models, actresses, mums and shopkeepers, all with a common thread of barely-held sanity about to tip into full delusion. These are women vying for what they want, on one hand certain they deserve it, while somehow also internally crumbling before our eyes. “I think a lot of times you play characters that are part of you. I’m from the Midwest and and it felt so out of reach to do any of this stuff I do now. So I think there’s something in me that’s very nervous but also very confident at the same time. I honestly think that I’m the most confident person who really loves herself but also is nervous to even order a coffee sometimes. I also love to play someone who’s bad at something but also really, really wants it. The comedy persona comes from me and it is exaggerated and played out in these different ways. The persona is almost how I would be if I was this monster who wasn’t at all self aware”.
A recurring motif in Stalter’s characters, and one which she revisits in her Fringe show, is that of the phantom husband. Often referred to as just off-camera or off-stage, by turns admonished and adored, he is both jealously guarded and callously dismissed. As I suspected, there is a lot going on there. “Well first of all is he real? Does the character really have a husband or is she just saying she does? I am definitely making fun of the fact that we’re all supposed to have a husband. And the idea that it’s considered impressive if you do have one. In the live show I mention a husband and the joke is kind of that there isn’t one. But in the videos sometimes I like the image that there’s some husband in the background that just hates me. There’s something funny and sad and lonely about how much happier that person would probably be if they went and found someone that was right for them.”
Part of the joy of chatting with Stalter – as well as of watching her perform – is her sincere sense of self-possession; a deep and powerful positive self-regard that feels somehow modern and fresh in comedy. “We definitely grew up on comedians that are very, very self deprecating. The truth is I do feel very happy and in love with myself. It took from my early twenties to feel really comfortable with myself and to feel I’m who I was meant to be. I’ll always have a sense of humour about myself but there’s so much pressure on us to look a certain way and to act a certain way, so if you are lucky enough to get past a lot of it you think, ‘I am never going back there’. Everyone has insecurities, but for me they don’t really exist on stage. It’s not the place for them. I want to watch people who are having the best time.”