On The Couch with Mary Houlihan

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Mary Houlihan

What do you get when you cross Charlotte Moorman with Maria Bamford? If either of those performers could also paint, you might get something that looks like Mary Houlihan. An active creator across multiple artistic disciplines, she seems to thrive in the space between art and performance, between comedy and tragedy (do I laugh at this woman singing all the words to “Dancing In The Dark” wrong, or should I help her?), and—perhaps most importantly—between live-action comedy and animated cartoons. She just finished up an impressive run of Cartoon Monsoon, the sketch comedy and animation show she hosted with Joe Rumrill at Williamsburg’s Annoyance Theater. Mary thankfully had time to stop by the couch via email in between her many comedic and artistic commitments. We spoke about art school stigmas, getting too personal, and what it feels like to create an animated sketch show.

How does being a visual artist influence your work as a performance artist? Can you tell me about your path to get from one to the other?

When I think “performance artist,” I think Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Yoko Ono… those are the only ones I can name if I don’t think too hard. I didn’t do performance art in school, and have never performed in an art gallery, or shown an “art video” in an exhibition. So I’ve never thought before getting asked just now that my shows, which are narrative and take place in comedy venues, could be considered performance art. It’s kind of interesting to think about.

I studied Painting at San Francisco Art Institute (and did some animation too, though that wasn’t a field of study there). There was a major at my school called New Genres, which included things like performance art and “video” (as opposed to film). From my perspective, New Genres had a stigma because I think a lot of people felt like painting, sculpting, printmaking, narrative and documentary filmmaking, etc. required more skill and elbow grease, while performance/video was like, “just a video of a naked guy pouring milk on himself” or whatever. I know there’s good performance art, but you know what I mean.

After I got my BFA, I wanted to continue painting in my leisure time and get a practical job that wasn’t working retail, so I started looking into getting an associate’s in nursing or counseling or something, anything. I was taking classes at a junior college, when a friend from home was like, “You dingus. Since when have you wanted to be a nurse? You’re funny and smart, I always pictured you becoming a Daily Show correspondent.”

Writing for TV was a dream of mine that I fantasized about since I was a kid, which I didn’t even realize until after college that “someone like me” could do. Having my friend say it out loud made it seem less crazy. I decided I had to move to New York or Los Angeles to do comedy and write scripts, and if I worked hard then eventually it would have to work out.

What gave you the inspiration for Cartoon Monsoon?

My friends Kate Banford and Aaron Nevins had an indie comedy festival called Philadelphia Five Dollar Comedy Week, that encouraged a lot of alternative, sketch, character shows, anything experimental. I sent them a bunch of pitches and the one they picked was a vaguely titled “The Cartoon Show with Mary Houlihan and Joe Rumrill.” Me and Joe had been talking about doing an animation-related show for a while, so when we got an actual date we were like, “Huh, guess we should figure out what this ‘cartoon show’ is.”

We decided to show three cartoons from indie animators, and do hosting bits in between. We ended up playing heightened versions of ourselves living in a fantastical clubhouse, so we were thinking a lot about shows like Captain Kangaroo, Howdy Doody, Peewee’s Playhouse, etc. We also wanted to have a fun car ride to Philly, so we invited a bunch of friends to play characters like “Knifey, the man made out of knives,” “Puddles the Cat Comedian,” and “Puppet,” a puppet who is operated by the superb Tim Platt. It was super fun so as soon as we got back to NY we tried to get a run somewhere, and the Annoyance Theatre was a really good fit.

As a student at SFAI, did you inject your work with a sense of humor? Did you explore the bay area comedy scene at all?

What’s so strange is that I was completely ignorant of any comedy happening when I lived there. I saw Janeane Garofalo once, and another time got barked into a show that basically an open mic night, and that was it. I recently performed at SF Sketchfest and it was so, so, so fun. I can’t believe I completely missed out on that stuff!

I particularly put more humor into my work when I started making animations. Just by virtue of film being a time-based media instead of a static painting/drawing, the work becomes more narrative, and has more opportunities for gags.

One project that I still think is pretty cool and funny are these construction paper stop motion animations I made of scenes from the Todd Solondz movie Welcome To The Dollhouse, which me and my friends compulsively rented from the video store when we in middle school. I think the movie is really funny and really sad, and really relatable, which then makes you feel sad again because of how much you can empathize with this pathetic character. I used the original audio and recreated the film’s imagery with crudely cut-out construction paper, which makes the people look uglier, and their movements more awkward, and emphasizes that funny/sad/embarrassing/awful feeling.

Live N Good seems to be part confessional, part performance—how much of it is earnest storytelling vs. complete fiction? Do you have any comedic or artistic inspirations when it comes to performance art?

The show is mostly silly, 1% earnest storytelling and 99% nonsense. It’s supposed to be like if the Zucker Brothers made a live one-woman show.

I’m pretty uncomfortable with earnest storytelling. I think it comes from not wanting to romanticize depression or misery. I feel a lot more inspired to make up something new and fun and dumb, because it’s like a reminder that it’s okay to look at life through that kind of lens.

Other than “if the Zucker Brothers made a live one-woman show,” some other references I was thinking of in making Live N Good were Chelsea Peretti’s Spike Jonze-directed special One Of The Greats, which revels in lots of editing jokes and disarmament of the self-serious comedy special, Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W Bush, and Zach Galifianakis Live At The Purple Onion, particularly the cutting back and forth between his stand-up and the “Seth Galifianakis” interviews.

Do you aim to shock with your humor? Is any of it meant to be a political statement about women, New York? Fame?

It’s just stuff that makes me laugh that I think other people will laugh at too. There’s no thesis statement or intended message I come up with before I write a show. I can’t really help how other people internalize my work, or what it means to them. It’s so crazy, and kind of frustrating to me, when people tell me a satirical message that they think I’m trying to express in my comedy that’s not at all intended. It makes me feel very misunderstood! I was complaining about this to my boyfriend last night, and he was like, “Well think about how many interviews you’ve read where a musician gets asked if a lyric means this or that, and it’s always totally off.” Oh my god it sounds like a nightmare! I guess I just have to get used to it.

What are your eventual goals? Do you plan to pursue more mainstream comedy/media, or to venture into more artistic interpretations of comedy?

I think of myself as on a more mainstream entertainment trajectory. I want a screenplay to get made, write for a workplace sitcom, write a novel, stuff like that. My career path in visual art is a little more passive. I don’t really like going to gallery openings, it feels like going somewhere just to be seen, feels so fake. I’m always going to make paintings because it’s fun and interesting to me, so I imagine the more known I become as an entertainer the more people will be interested in buying them, and the more I will be able to charge. You know, like Ringo Starr.

I feel like I’m my best self when I’m making things, writing, painting, making videos, any kind of self-expression. It feels like if I’m not making something, then I’m not respecting myself.

How does the New York comedy scene help or hinder your goals as a comedian? Do you find it to be a supportive group of comics?

It really rules. Making stuff with other people is too fun and really helpful. I feel like I often have the experience where someone is like, putting on a very specific themed bit show, like this is a bad example but maybe the show is like “ROBO-COMEDY5000! ALL SETS ARE PERFORMED BY OR ABOUT ROBOTS!” And you have to write something to fit this theme that you would never in a million years come up with if you were just sitting by yourself trying to write stand-up. And then that dumb throwaway bit or character you did ends up going really well and it makes its way into your regular set. I love that feeling. It’s also nice to feel like you can come up with an idea for a video or a play, and you’ll have tons of willing participants to help you out, even if it’s the dumbest thing ever made.

How has comedy helped your mental health?

When I moved to NY and started doing comedy it felt so right and like I was where I was meant to be, especially after a period of not being super sure of what I was doing. So that alone is a really great feeling, which honestly hasn’t faded very much. I’ve been very depressed for most of my life, very self-critical. I feel like I’m my best self when I’m making things, writing, painting, making videos, any kind of self-expression. It feels like if I’m not making something, then I’m not respecting myself, like I’m not appreciating and making the most of my talents. Especially as a teenager, I found so much solace in books and music and my favorite TV shows. I would feel very inspired by how good they were, and if the author was funny, I’d feel like we were in a special club or something. Like I got their jokes and I bet they’d get mine and we’d get along really great. So I kind of like the fantasy of myself one day being able to make something that can reach people when they’re in a tough spot and get that same feeling.