Aisha Tyler: Comedy Pentathlon Champion

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Every profession has its benchmarks, its measuring sticks by which aspirants judge their success. For comedians, there are five major ones, a sort of Comedy Pentathlon: The Talk Show, The Standup Special, The Sitcom, The Podcast (the most recently added event) and The Book. Not all comedians aspire to all five, but they do exist, and those who can do most or even several of them well are held in high regard indeed. But there are a few rare talents who succeed in all five events. That’s why Aisha Tyler is the gold medalist of the Comedy Pentathlon.

She cuts a singular figure to start with, in her person as well as in her persona. She grew up extraordinarily tall, finally topping out at her current 6 feet. Also blessed with a slim build and a striking beauty, she might seem to be a perfect candidate for a career in modeling. Oh, except that she was, and is, a huge tomboy, freakishly intelligent (she’s a Dartmouth grad), addicted to laughter, and an utter geek at heart. A born entertainer, in other words.

Although her geek credentials run deep, with passions ranging from microbrewed beer to science fiction to gaming, a few unwise fanboys scoffed at her being named to present the Ubisoft press conference at the E3 2012 conference last year. The line of attack began by branding her as inauthentic and an outsider and got much worse (and more personal) from there. Tyler responded with one of the greatest takedowns in the history of Facebook, a poem entitled Dear Gamers, in which she dropped such lines as:

I’ve played since I was a little kid. 
Since I begged my dad to buy me a Nintendo LCD Donkey Kong, Jr.
Since I blew through three weeks’ allowance playing Defender at the laundromat.
Since you were a twinge in the left side of your daddy’s underoos.

and:

I don’t give out my gamertag because I don’t want a mess of noob jackholes lining up
to assassinate me on XBL. 
I don’t give a shit what you think about my gamerscore.
I don’t play to prove a point. 
I don’t play to be the best.
I play because I love it.

and, most gloriously:

People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.

Aisha Tyler is a force not to be trifled with.

She’s made four short films, and she’s a co-host on The Talk (CBS’ answer to The View); she’s been in Kanye West videos and voiced major videogame characters, she’s appeared in Nash Bridges and Celebrity Jeopardy, she’s hosted SXSW panels, and she’s even appeared live at the Paste interview lounge, but it really all boils down to the Pentathlon.

EVENT ONE—The Talk Show

With such a unique background and personality makeup, it’s perhaps not so surprising that Tyler started the Comedy Pentathlon with the event that is normally the crowning achievement at the apex of a comic’s career—the TV talk show (see Leno, Jay; Fallon, Jimmy; O’Brien, Conan). Of course, that gig was not just any talk show—it was the greatest guilty pleasure-cult smash that the E! network ever produced. Talk Soup had already launched the career of its original host, Greg Kinnear, and would go on to do so with Joel McHale (under whose watch it was relaunched and rebranded as The Soup). That McHale has continued to host The Soup even as he has become one of the geek world’s most beloved sitcom leads (in NBC’s Community) is a testament to the power of the show.

It’s a gloriously anarchic, smarmy program, as the host plays, and sardonically quips about, clips from soap operas, reality shows and even other talk shows. It’s a bit like David Spade’s “Hollywood Minute” segment from Saturday Night Live, stretched out into a half-hour show. But that’s also part of the danger of the show—it’s unusually dependent on the timing and comic persona of its host. Kinnear’s irresistible charisma launched the show on a high note and made it a cult hit. But by 2001, the show had misfired with two short-lived and uninspired hosts and was in bad need of a reboot. Enter Aisha Tyler, the future Comedy Pentathlon champ.

Tyler was everything a Talk Soup host needed to be—hilarious, charismatic and whip-smart. She pulled off the always-difficult maneuver of reminding every straight guy and gay girl of the hot, smart girlfriend they always wanted, while simultaneously reminding every gay guy and straight girl of the hot, smart girl they always wanted to be friends with. The show thrived under her two-season run. During the same time period, she was also the host of The 5th Wheel, which separated itself from a sudden herd of dating shows of the era, again mostly because of her charisma.

EVENT TWO—The Standup Special

Every comedian wants a standup special. Truth to tell, every comedian wants to win all five events of the Comedy Pentathlon, but The Standup Special is the event that seems most within the immediate grasp of the working comic, and as a result it’s obsessively pursued. As with seemingly everything in her career, Tyler played this one smartly, letting the special come to her. She was already well-established when Comedy Central aired Aisha Tyler is Lit: Live at the Fillmore, filmed at the historic venue is her beloved hometown of San Francisco.

It’s a smart, funny set, highlighted by her first foray into music video, a hilarious song called “No Ass at All.” Tyler actually raps on the song, but is self-aware enough to give herself an un-shoutout of sorts: “I really can’t rap/Obviously my flow’s completely wack” (which she then deftly and audaciously follows up with the couplet “I can’t dunk for jack/ I’m really only kinda half black”).

But by this point Tyler had already been doing standup comedy for well over a decade. She had this down. She had seen a standup show in college that really opened her eyes to the possibilities of the medium. “I remember emerging,” she writes in her new book, “after laughing so hard that my stomach muscles ached… and feeling as delirious and amazed as if I had discovered fire. That was when I fell in love with comedy.”

She caught the bug at just the right time. The ‘90s saw one of the biggest standup booms ever, whether in comedy clubs themselves or on television. She soaked up as much of it as she could find. And found most of it wanting. She began to think that she could do better. “It was this kind of unfounded and breathtaking hubris,” she writes, “that made me quirkily adorable, and also highly likely to lose a limb or get stabbed by an itinerant tattoo artist someday.”

But she began developing jokes, or rather premises for jokes, carrying around a notebook and scribbling in it every time inspiration hit. Seven months later, she performed at her first open mic, actually paying for the privilege. She got through over three-quarters of her act without getting any laughs from audience members who were not her boyfriend. Ah, but there was that one moment, that one glorious moment, when one of her jokes hit. “That one laugh,” she writes, “like a single transcendent experience on a highly potent drug, was enough to change my brain chemistry forever. Afterwards, my boyfriend and I went and ate our weight in dumplings. And after that, he got laid.”

“The next day,” she continues, “when people at work asked me how my big debut had gone, I told them the truth: it was terrible. And somehow, I couldn’t wait to do it again.” And she did do it again. And again. And again. Hundreds and hundreds of times, through TV gigs and movies and long fallow periods, she did standup shows. And when the time came and she was called to the plate for her standup special, she knocked it out of the park. Event Two, to Aisha Tyler.

EVENT THREE—The Sitcom

Of course, between those two events, The Talk Show and The Standup Special, Tyler was busy establishing herself as an actress, with recurring roles in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and 24, as a series regular on The Ghost Whisperer, and with guest spots on everything from Nip/Tuck to Reno: 911. And it was also during this time that she had a productive run on a little show you may have heard of called Friends.

Tyler has done so many of her own projects, and so well, and so many casual fans know her primarily as “Joey and Ross’ girlfriend,” that you almost feel bad asking her about the show. But she’s got a great attitude about it, and has a quick joke at the ready: “A lot people ask ‘What’s it like to kiss Joey and Ross?’” she says. “They both taste like money.” She’s grateful for the attention she got from Friends, but she’s obviously more energized to talk about Archer.

And no wonder; as Lana Kane in the great FX network series (I maintain it’s the best show on television), Tyler has given voice (and slightly exaggerated figure) to one of the great female character icons in geek history—the titular character’s ex-girlfriend, foil, antagonist, continuing-sexual-chemistry-partner and forever twisted soulmate. If Archer is James Bond meets Arrested Development, Lana Kane is some bastard child of Moneypenny, Pussy Galore, Jackie Brown, Diane Chambers, Newman, Rosebud and, most intriguingly, Aisha Tyler herself. Plus whichever Brokeback character you want to assign to her (and if you think that’s not a shameless ploy to have Lana one day tell Archer “I wish I knew how to quit you,” you obviously don’t know me very well).

Tyler herself shrugs off the comparison to her character. “I wish I was like Lana,” she says. “I love her so much. I definitely don’t have her boobs. She’s gonna suffocate under the weight of those, like a horse that broke a leg. Organs crushing lungs.”

But what about the psychological similarities? “I like how cocksure she is, but she’s an emotional mess who doesn’t know what she wants. She’s overdriven by work, and I definitely have that in common with her. She’s just obsessed with work. But she could use a pair of pants. I love pants and I think Lana could express some affection for pants. It’s gotta be drafty doing all that spy work with a miniskirt on. But I really, really like her, and I love playing her.”

Acting in an animated series, of course, brings very different challenges than acting in a live show. “Well, you know, there’s a really specific math to the way I do our show,” she says. “Animation is very very different from live performance because you have a thousand runs at the same thing to get it right. So when I have a line I just say it in every single way I can think of that might be funny until I hear it. You know, I’m in a booth in L.A, the guys who create the show are in Atlanta, I can hear them through T-1 line and they’re not listening to me at all; they’re masturbating. But if I make them laugh, if I make them stop masturbating for a few seconds, then I know I got the line right. So I just listen, and luckily I’ve been doing comedy long enough that I feel like I have some ideas and I bring them in, but then I just run at that line over and over again. When they crack up at that line I move on. I’m sure some people do it like a scene. Jessica [Walter, who plays Mallory Archer] might have a little more arty of a process where she tries to actually be an actor, but I just go nuts. There’s a lot of jumping and waving your arms around and going bananas.”

Archer fans can rest assured that their favorite is in good (if very large) hands with Tyler. She’s as big a fan as anyone of the show. “I love making that show so much that I don’t even know how to express it in words,” she raves. “It’s like this little show that I never thought would get on the air. I used the word ‘ball-slappiest’ in the pilot, so I was sure that was never gonna be a show that got on the air. But every time it gets picked up I feel like my baby is walking, you know.”

EVENT FOUR—The Podcast

As electronic distribution for entertainment continues to rapidly evolve, one of the most exciting developments of the last few years, both for fans and for the entertainers themselves, has been the rise of the podcast. Connecting directly to fans (and making new ones), and having virtually no constraints of time, budget or content has allowed and enabled the emergence of a new set of personality leaders. And it’s been an especially fertile ground for comics, probably because comedy is so personality-driven. When you listen to a Marc Maron podcast, a Jay Mohr podcast or a Kevin Smith podcast, it’s an intimate experience in a way that The Tonight Show just isn’t. The Tonight Show can, and does, change hosts (albeit rarely and with great fanfare). But you’re exceedingly unlikely to ever hear that Marc Maron is handing over the reins of WTF to Mike Birbiglia. It’s just not the way podcasting generally works.

If you’re thinking that that sounds like a perfect environment for Aisha Tyler, you’re exactly correct. Her Girl on Guy podcast (and of course it’s called that; who else but Tyler would call a podcast by that title?) has been one of the genre’s big hits since it began. That only makes sense, given Tyler’s compelling persona and the space it’s given to flourish in the podcasting world.

“Yes, I am fascinating,” she jokes. But she insists it’s actually about her guests’ personalities. “You know, I just wanted to give my listeners a singular experience with someone that they admire. I feel like I’ve been on the other side of interviews a million times where it’s pre-adjusted, pre-produced, and you’ve got seven minutes. ‘Remember that story you told me on the phone? Well, tell me that and drop the punchline and here comes a commercial.’ You never really get to know a person that way, so I feel like the way to get someone to open up is to be open with them. Make them feel comfortable, make them feel like it’s a safe space, and once they feel like they can’t embarrass themselves and you’re not going to let them swing, they usually open up. People will say things on a microphone that they won’t say with lights and a camera. I clearly will say whatever the fuck anywhere, but most people are more inhibited when there’s cameras on them. I want the show to be more of a conversation than an interview, and what I feel really grateful for—and I’m sure Marc has probably said this too—is that every single episode someone says ‘I’ve never told this story before. I’ve never said this to anyone before. I’ve never told this in public before.’”

That exploration has led her, as it has led Maron, to explore some very intimate spaces with some guests. She recently did a show with Maria Bamford. “She is a genius,” Tyler raves, “and I’ve known her for a very long time and we end up talking for 90 minutes about mental illness. And it’s really, really fucking funny, because crazy people are hilarious by the way. We talk about her own mental illness and her struggle with mental illness when she was a really little kid. And when you have someone be that open with you, you can’t throw a punchline back, you have to be there for them. But we did throw a lot of punchlines around though; we made fun of crazy people. But luckily I had a crazy person in the room, so I had permission.”

Another significant moment in the show was with W. Kamau Bell. “People have a path that they’ve gone through,” Tyler says, “and they’ve struggled and they put a lot of their blood and sweat and energy into what they do, and that’s not a three-minute fuckin’ story on a late night show. That’s a long story to tell and I feel like the more I can say, ‘Hey I’ve been through it too and I can relate.’ Kamau Bell was just on my show and his self-inflicted wound is that he said he has a porn addiction. He said ‘this is a big deal, it’s true and it’s not a joke, and I need to say it out loud to make it real, and that’s a way for me to start to deal with it.’ I could have reacted a hundred different ways, but I said I want you to feel really safe right now. I don’t want you to feel like you made a mistake saying that out loud, so then we talked about it for like 20, 25 minutes. I want my show to feel like a really safe place, and I cultivate that relationship with my guests and I make sure that I cultivate that kind of a listenership.”

It’s a lot more than you’d expect from a show called Girl on Guy, right? “I wanted to do a show,” she explains, “that was about stuff that I love that tended to be stuff that was more guy-friendly than female friendly. It was a show that was about stuff that guys love brought to you by a guy’s girl. But that was the premise and it’s evolved a little bit to be more about art and trial and how you see these people that you admire and realize they’re charmed and have some kind of magic lock, and when you sit down and talk with any interesting artist or athlete or writer, what you find out is they’ve had a lot of personal challenges and failures that got them to where they are now. So the show is really about talking with them about how you got to be the world’s best all-around snowboarder, how did you get to be called Mr. Spin? How did you get to be a night-time television host? And what you find is people with really interesting stories. They’ve gone through a lot; they’ve failed a lot. They’ve had a hundred breaks that were not the break, and then we curse a lot. Which I love a lot; I love the internet. I sometimes curse just to see how much I can curse. Just fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck fuck…hi mom!”

EVENT FIVE—The Book

The Book is perhaps the most difficult of the five Comedy Pentathlon events. A talent for standup doesn’t necessarily translate into a talent for writing. The rhythm is different; the voice is different. And you sometimes need to use bigger words (that Dartmouth education probably helped there). But as you might expect by now, Tyler excels in this event as well.

Her first book, 2004’s Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl, is good, but it’s fairly mainstream and is required reading only for those who are already fans of Tyler’s. But Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation, is something else altogether. It’s energetic, intimate, personal, rawer than the earlier book. Taking her cue from the last question she asks each of her guests, she’s built it around 33 of her own “self-inflicted wounds,” and with chapter titles like these, you can tell already that this book’s going to be both funnier and more revealing than the previous one:

7. The Time I Peed on Myself and My Surroundings
17. The Time I Danced Tragically in Front of My Entire College
20. The First Time I Did Standup
22. The Hundredth Time I Did Standup
24. The Time I Wore That Awful See-Through Dress
32. The Time I Vowed to Stop Drunk Tweeting

Each of those chapters lives up to the promise of its title. Unlike Swerve, which I’d give to a fellow Tyler fan, I’d give Self-Inflicted Wounds to someone to make them a Tyler fan.

The concept of the guest sharing a self-inflicted wound was established in the inaugural episode of Girl on Guy. “There’s a segment at the end of every show,” Tyler explains, “where the guest tells an extremely humiliating story about themselves. Like, punishingly embarrassing. The inaugural story was from H. Jon Benjamin, who’s my co-star on Archer, and it was a story about getting food poisoning on a plane and deciding he was ninja enough to drive from LAX to Pasadena, which is a very long drive, and it went very poorly for him. The punchline to that story is that ‘I didn’t just shit my pants; I shit my car.’ So that was the bar that was set to which all others must live up.”

And if Tyler set the bar there for her guests, she felt the need to reach that bar herself as well. “The book is a collection of a lifetime of self-inflicted wounds,” she says, “since the time I was about five years old until, apparently, right now. I think the essence of the book, other than just a collection of treats of embarrassment and shame, is about how failure generates success. You always hear people say ‘I didn’t do that because I was worried I was gonna fail.’ And that has never been a reason for me not trying something. I usually go in thinking that this is going to go terribly and I’m pretty much going to get injured, but that was never a reason to stop me before and it’s never going to stop me now. The people at Wired did a whole issue on failure, and how most successes come out of failure. For comedians, killing isn’t what makes you funny—bombing makes you funny. When you bomb, it makes you fearless; you know you can bomb and not die. Usually when you bomb and walk off stage and wake up from your binge-drinking, you think ‘maybe I should re-write some jokes.’ So it’s really about failure as a tool for success. And also about how I almost set myself on fire.”

In that context, someone references Al Swearengen’s classic speech from Deadwood about how to deal with failure, which ends with “Stand it like a man. And give some back.” Tyler riffs, “Yeah, embrace it! Give it a little reach-around. You’d be surprised at what failure—well what anyone would do if you do a reach-around. A reach-around is the way to close the deal in any situation.” Which doesn’t exactly seem like an image to guide your life, but strangely is.

So, at the tender age of 42, Tyler has already won the gold in the Comedy Pentathlon. What’s next? For Tyler, what comes next—in addition to the book, more panels and speaking appearances, more The Talk, more Archer—is a relaunch of Whose Line is it Anyway? this fall. Just taking over a storied comedy television franchise based around improvisation—the hardest form of comedy and one in which, by the way, she has little formal training.

How does a champion top the championship? By venturing out on the high-dive alone, of course.

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