On The Couch with Alise Morales

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Alise Morales

The subject is ebullient and eager, a combination of traits that would otherwise seem juvenile if I weren’t well aware of her impressive résumé. In the past two years, she has taken the underground comedy community of New York by storm—it seemed impossible to go a month, or even a week, without hearing about a newly successful variety show, sketch group, or improv team that she created. But what makes today’s subject so interesting is not merely her many successful performances, but the topics she broaches in her shows. Whether it’s reading old LiveJournal entries, discussing nightmarish tales from her adolescence, or frankly broaching sexual positivity, she has managed to make comedy a space for growth and support. Although she’s a relative newcomer to the scene, Alise Morales is already changing what stand-up comedy can be, and it involves a lot of Harry Potter fan-fiction.

How did you first start doing comedy?

I got into comedy when I went to University of Delaware, and my sophomore year, I joined the improv team there, The Rubber Chickens, and I just really, really liked it. I think I was always into comedy, but I didn’t realize it was a thing you could pursue until I joined the improv team. There were a lot of people on the team like Ben Warheit and Neil Casey who had been on the team and moved to New York and started doing things with [the Upright Citizens Brigade], so I saw that pathway, and that’s when I decided to pursue it, and kind of figured out what I was going to do; I would move to New York, I would go to UCB, all that stuff.

Were you a performer growing up? What made you try out for the improv team?

I was. I would always go out for plays. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I lived there until I was twelve before moving to Virginia. When I was growing up in LA, I was really into taking acting classes, and I did a little kids comedy group that was a short form improv group, and then I forgot about that. I did the plays and stuff, but I didn’t really think about that again until I started doing comedy. And then I was like, “Oh yeah, I actually did this when I was a little kid!” I had given it up when we moved to Virginia, but then I found it again.

Your shows have pretty personal, intimate themes. You produce shows on youth, adolescence, gender, sexuality. Have you always had such an open-book, personal approach to your humor?

I figured it out more when I first started getting into standup, which I started to think about doing my senior year of college. That was when I figured out that the jokes that I liked doing the most and the jokes that are hitting the hardest when I do them are more of a storytelling format and more personal to me. I’m not as good at the “set up-punchline jokes.” I think when I was getting into standup, I tried to fit myself into that because that’s what I saw a lot of people doing and what I thought the best form of standup was. But then I realized, storytelling and more long-form, personal jokes are just more of who I am. I’m funnier when that’s what I’m doing.

How did you make the transition from improv to standup?

I try to do all the different “types” of comedy that I can. I’m taking classes at UCB and still doing improv, but I’m still booking myself on standup shows and character shows. The way I look at it is, all of that stuff is working a different comedy muscle. If you want to be overall “fit,” you’re going to want to try a lot of it and make sure you know the ins and outs of doing all of it. It all feeds into each other. I’ve written sketches based on improv, I’ve written sketches based on stand-up shows, I’ve written stand-up jokes based on improv; it all works together.

Do you think that’s a New York thing? I feel like I know a lot of comedians here who are taking whatever types of shows are available to them.

I don’t know what the scenes look like in other cities. I feel like Chicago has a pretty vibrant indie scene and stuff like that. I do think that, at least in comedy right now, there are so many opportunities to do shows, and so many types of shows. There are so many venues and people I know that are putting them on that I think it spurs people to try different formats. There’s just a lot of room to do it.

I’m very interested in your work at the Annoyance Theatre, which is a very recent addition to the Brooklyn comedy scene. That, to me at least, marked some kind of declaration of the Brooklyn comedy scene as its own entity. What is your take on the emerging scene in Brooklyn? Is it markedly different from the rest of New York?

I feel like the Annoyance coming in definitely shook things up a lot, and I think everyone does shows everywhere, but I think the Annoyance brought in this new vibe that’s very experimental; it’s a place where you can try anything and see what happens. That’s what’s really attracted me to it. And also, it just opened up a lot of opportunities for people to do shows. UCB is so big, and there are so many talented people that are going through it, that it’s really hard to get a show on there. But because Annoyance is so new, the theatre will give you a shot. You can do a triple feature and get it on, or you can get your show up one day and get it seen, and maybe get a run. It’s just a hub for new opportunities.

I think my 15-year-old self would not be into how much Taylor Swift I listen to.

You do a semi-regular show called “The Roast of Your 15-Year-Old Self.” Why do you think people want to “roast” their teenage selves?

I think that everybody is embarrassed by how they acted when they were 15. Everyone went through really weird growing pains. What I’ve found with this show is that, I’ve never had anyone do it who didn’t have a really interesting story, whether it was funny or sad or heartfelt. We’ve seen such a range of stories because, really, that’s such an emotionally intense time for people that you can’t come out of it without something. So I think it gives comedians a really good opportunity to dive back into that stuff.

What do you think your 15-year-old self would think of you today?

My 15-year-old self would be into the fact that I was in New York and doing comedy. I think my 15-year-old self would not be into how much Taylor Swift I listen to. She would be very disappointed about that. But the other stuff, I think she’d be down.

You were a more alt 15-year-old?

Well, I was pretending to be. I had pink hair, but I didn’t really know about anything. Like, my MySpace had a Dead Kennedys song on it, but that was the only Dead Kennedys song I had ever listened to. It was all a facade.

What do your parents think of your comedy? Are they supportive of it? Have they seen your shows?

My parents have been great. They knew about the SEX with Betsy and Alise show. They were very supportive. It’s funny, becuase it was right around the same time that my sister got cast in this play about bisexuality and visibility, and was traveling to Dublin for that. It was a big time for my parents and they handled it really well. They’re cute, they share all my videos and stuff; my dad will sometimes just share my website on his Facebook page, out of the blue. So they never told me not to do it, or questioned me when I was like, “Hey, I know I just studied international relations and Spanish at UD for four years, but I’m going to New York and I’m going to do comedy.”

Why do you think your sex-positive comedy show struck a chord with so many people?

I think it was something that was really missing from comedy. I think, right now, culturally, people are interested in female sexuality in particular. So for it to be like, “We’re going to have a cast of all women, and they’re going to have a discussion for you, and we’re going to explore this together,” was definitely something people were excited about. And once we got [porn star and director] Lisa Ann, I think that really piqued people’s interest, because you don’t get to hear from those people. Like you don’t see an interview where someone is going to ask her real questions about her career—she’s had a crazy career and so I think people were interested in hearing about that.

Did you learn anything along the way about how your gender and sexuality impacts your own comedy?

I think so. Betsy and I both, after the show was over, wished we had more representation of more diverse communities and sexualities like a trans comedian on it, or a gay comedian. I think after the show we both recognized that we really missed an opportunity to do that. It really made me think about my own biases: Why didn’t I know someone to ask who was gay, or trans? Why didn’t I think to ask this person? I felt afterwards that I had clearly placed my own experiences as a heterosexual woman at the forefront of this, when there were other voices we could have brought in that would have made the show even stronger. I think if we did it again in a year, we would both work a little harder to find other representations other than just ourselves.

What form of comedy—be it standup, improv, characters—is the most conducive to expressing diversity in comedy?

I think improv tries pretty hard. When I first came to the city, there were times when I would do a stand-up show and I would be the only woman on the bill. But in the past year, I feel like that almost never happens. Very rarely am I on a show with all men. I think in improv they’ve been trying to make real strides with people, forming really good all-female teams. There used to be a standard: four guys, two girls on a team. Now you see UCB playing with that format a little bit. They had an all-female team for a little while, then they added two guys. We’re seeing a different mix of genders on the teams. Across the board in comedy, over the past two years, more women have been visible on stage.

Do you prefer to do shows that are all female?

I think it’s fun. It feels more like a party. But I like doing shows with dudes too. I think all-female shows are important because there are so many shows that have defaulted to all-male for so long. So that’s why I think it feels really important when I do those shows. But I don’t know if I have more fun doing one or the other.

Do you think that comedy has become more of a place for empowerment and activism than it was when you first started?

I definitely thing that talking about feminism and race is something that is going on in comedy right now, and I think that’s good. But comedy has always been a place where people talk about these things. I was watching an old Smothers Brothers clip and they were talking about the Vietnam War, and I realized that comedy has always found the things that are on peoples’ minds and talks about them. I think now that’s a lot of racial issues and gender issues. People are trying to figure out what they think about all of this.

Do you think comedians are narcassistic people?

I wonder if other groups, like doctors or politicians, would feel the same way that comedians feel about each other, and get pissed at different things. As far as comedians go, people definitely have certain anxieties, people want to be looked at. It’s weird because in a group of comedians, you’re all still friends, and you’re trying to just be normal friends, but also, you’re competing for the same jobs, you’re competing for the best stage time, so it’s hard not to get caught up. It takes effort to see that your friend has a show and think, “Oh, that’s great for them!” instead of, “Why didn’t they book me?”

I think to be funny, you have to be honest, and to be honest, you have to be honest with yourself too.

So tell me about your comedy festival coming up.

I’ve been hosting this comedy festival with my friend Pat Wise since I moved to New York, and it’s been two years now. Pat in particular, who does some really great musical comedy stuff, always had this idea of doing a music festival. Last year we did a tiny one where it was a regular show with all musical acts. But this year, we were like, “What if we get a big venue, we book it for the whole day, and we get all of these acts.” So we got Black Bear Bar for the whole day. It’s on July 11 from 2-11 and we have fifty bands, we’re going to do it in blocks of comedy. It’s just been a project we’ve wanted to do for a really long time, and something we’ve wanted to do with our show for a really long time. We got a vodka company to help sponsor it. It’s going to be really fun becuase it’s something new that people haven’t seen before. It’s the first comedy music festival in Brooklyn; there’s one in Manhattan that Jessica Delfino does, and she’s on our bill too.

Why did you decide so early on to make your own shows, instead of just waiting to get booked on other peoples’ shows?

I think once I started hosting “Cool Show, Not Lame,” I realized that I liked hosting shows, and it was something that I think is fun. I’ve always liked events, like in college we’d have a lot of parties, and we’d have our improv shows, and I did event planning for my student board and stuff, so I think just putting on shows is something that seems fun to me, which is part of what spurred this. I also feel like, I don’t want to wait around for things if I can make them happen myself. There are so many places where you can literally go in, book a date, and put on a show for free that there’s no reason not to. I also know so many comedians that it’s easy to book a show and get people to come. It’s fun and it gives me an opportunity to do something cool.

Looking to the future, do you have a specific goal in comedy?

I think the ultimate goal would be to have my own show, that I was in, that I wrote. What Broad City has done is the dream. For now, my immediate job is to get to a place where I can quit my day job and make my money doing comedy, whether that’s just little spots on shows or writing.

Some people use the stage as therapy, do you see your comedy as a form of therapy?

Some of the stories that I’ve told on the roast embarrass me, and I always read my old Harry Potter fan-fiction at the show, and the first time I did it, I was shaking because I was so nervous and so embarrassed. But it’s cathartic. I worked really hard on that fan-fiction! It’s interesting, because I did a show once where everybody read their old fanfiction, and I was so deep into Harry Potter fan-fiction that I didn’t even think about the world of other fan-fictions that could be happening. One girl had written Mad About You fan-fiction.

Do you think comedy has improved your mental health?

I do try to get to a place where if something is upsetting to me, I’ll try to talk about it. So I think that comedy has made me more honest and accepting of who I am. I go to shows where people admit insane things about themselves and it helps put it in perspective. I was talking to a comedian just the other day about how we realized that everyone is kind of depressed, and everyone is having a weird time, and that has helped me. It makes me realize that what’s going on with me is not worse than anybody else, it’s just like, “Oh, we’re all slugging along here.” So I think that comedy has made me more introspective and made me accept myself more. So I think comedy has improved my mental health. I think to be funny, you have to be honest, and to be honest, you have to be honest with yourself too.