Why I Stopped Making Jokes About Actors

Stand-up comedian Heather Turman on how writing and performing in the movie Stuck changed her perspective on the thespian profession.

When people find out I do stand-up comedy, they tend to respond in one of two ways: “That seems so scary to me – I could never do it,” or “What on earth made you decide to do that? Are you insane?!”

I think the thing that scares most people about stand-up is that they consider it to be a little too soul-baring, that there isn’t anywhere to hide. Sharing your thoughts on stage in front of strangers, in a rhythm that either elicits laughter or majorly fails to, is the entertainment-equivalent of laying all your cards on the table even when you have a losing hand. You put yourself on the frontlines of rejection. Every. Single. Night.

I can see how some might find that scary. But that’s the thing — while most people can’t wrap their minds around how I could do it, I can’t understand how I could not. A comic is simply compelled to it.

Because I live in Los Angeles and perform stand-up there often, jokes about the entertainment industry are about as common as bro-comics miming sex acts with a stool. Especially when it comes to actors. They’re easy targets for jokes, and it’s pretty obvious why. Take their incessant vanity, for instance. Or how overly dramatic they are about everything. How they’re always “getting into character,” or bragging about things like “crying on cue.” I mean, the list could go on and on!

Comedians give actors a bad rep. In truth, I think it has less to do with what actors actually do, and more to do with the high esteem with which a comic holds the craft of stand-up. In our eyes, it’s the most respectable, most honest, most vulnerable of all the performing arts.

When my writing partner and I decided to produce our feature-film comedy, Stuck, I resolved to play one of the roles myself. I rationalized that being in the movie would help my ultimate goal of one day getting a series based on my act. And even though I wasn’t, like, an “actor-actor,” I had done some acting in my day. Albeit in the form of playing a character loosely based on myself – but still, I’d done it.

“If I can do stand-up, I can deliver some zingers and hit some marks,” I thought. “Piece of cake!

Stuck ended up scoring an amazing cast, with Spirit Award-winner Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) in the lead, and a supporting cast including Joel McHale (Community), Amir Talai (The Circle) and Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds). Even the director, Jillian Armenante, was a seasoned actor, having been in everything from Girl, Interrupted to ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

Seeing my name on the cast list with those heavyweights didn’t concern me one bit. I mean, I was a performer, after all, and I definitely wasn’t camera shy. Plus, being one of the writers surely gave me an edge. It was an honor and privilege to be in the company of so much talent.

It wasn’t until I got to set on the first day of production that I learned I was in for a rude awakening.

There I was, camera rolling, doing a scene opposite Heather Matarazzo. I delivered my lines, and then something strange that I hadn’t expected occurred. Instead of hearing the director yell, “Cut!” and then the rest of the crew joining in laughter and applause, the scene kept going. Even worse, was that Heather made eye contact with me, listened to me, and then appropriately reacted to my performance. With actual emotions. In turn, that caused me to feel things, which I almost never do – and then we kept right on feeling back and forth until the director said we could stop!

Heather Matarazzo and Heather Turman on the set of Stuck

The whole thing was a totally foreign concept, and it made me insanely uncomfortable.

Prior to production, I had assumed my job as an actor in a comedy was to know my lines and then say them in a funny, natural way. But this was an entirely new ballgame and it challenged me in ways I didn’t know were possible.

Because of my background in stand-up, I was used to saying a lot of highly personal things rooted in painful truths, so I had assumed I knew something about vulnerability. But the truth is, pain is deflected into humor before it ever hits, so you never really have to feel it. There’s a safety in it that I had never considered before. With acting, though, you are called to do the exact opposite. The art itself literally requires you to feel, so you can then react honestly to the situation.

In my eyes, acting was much scarier than stand-up. And there was a big difference between being camera shy, and being camera vulnerable.

Suffice it to say, staying present in those scenes went against every natural instinct in my body. Luckily, all those talented actors gave me a lot to work with, and coupled with Jillian’s direction, I was able to stand my ground and deliver more than just punchlines – I actually found real, heartfelt moments.

Heather Turman and Amir Talai in Stuck

By the end of production, I had found that I truly enjoyed the experience of acting, and am even hopeful I’ll get the chance to do more of it in the future.

Until then, I’ll be back on stage, where I can safely deflect emotion, say my lines in a funny way, and be rewarded with laughter.

Only from now on, there won’t be any more jokes about actors.

Stand-up comedian Heather Turman attacks the stage with an unapologetic sense of self. Her impeccable timing and brutal honesty have landed her on the FOX series Laughs, and as a top-finalist in the 2015 Westside Showdown in Los Angeles. No stranger to touring the country, Heather’s infectious stage presence has entertained audiences in 20 states and over 70 different cities. Earlier this year, she was featured at the prominent RIOT LA festival, and showcased for Just For Laughs 2017. Turman wrote and starred in the comedy feature film Stuck, alongside Joel McHale, Heather Matarazzo and Kate Flannery, due out later this year. For more, visit her official website.