Martha Kelly is genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
While statements like these can easily be seen as hyperbole, there was more than enough evidence — both circumstantial and magical (yes, magical) — to support the previous statement, based on just 30 minutes spent in conversation with the stand-up comedian. Her character on “Baskets” — the put-upon but never downtrodden Martha, who’s all too eager to help Chip (Zach Galifianakis) out of his many, many jams — certainly sets her up as a kind, generous soul, but the actress herself is on a whole other level, even if she won’t accept credit for crafting one of television’s most intriguing new characters.
Ms. Kelly, a fresh face to the TV world, simply can’t help but be honest. Her words and actions coexist to create a person who, after you meet her, makes you want everyone to meet her. It’s my hope that in the interview below, conducted at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, CA before “Baskets” premiered, you will gain a small taste of the experience, as Ms. Kelly digs into some truly joyous stories from the set of “Baskets,” why she’s really excited to come back for Season 2 (recently confirmed by FX), and even an inexplicable chance encounter that truly illustrates her inviting personality. But it all began with Ms. Kelly saying that her day was going quite well so far, and that she hadn’t run into too many unpleasant people — even when speaking to a hotel full of journalists.
As you’ll probably learn after we’re done, some of us are just crazy and you don’t want to talk to us. We’re just nuts.
I haven’t met any crazy people. I met a lot of photographers that I wanted to apologize to because of how awkward I am when they want to take your picture — but nobody crazy yet!
I’m sure that takes some getting used to. I mean, I’ve been on the red carpets and the press lines where they’re just yelling at you. It seems crazy.
It beats being a secretary, which is what I’ve done a lot of. It’s way more fun than that.
Good point. So, I’m sure you’ve told this story 60 times today, but could you please walk me through your audition process, or how you came on board on the show.
Yeah, I didn’t audition. I have known Zach [Galifaniakis] since ‘98. We met at a stand-up open mic, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. But we weren’t, like, hang-out buddies. We’ve just been friends, but kept in touch long distance sometimes, and he just called me out of the blue. I hadn’t talked to him in at least a year, and he just left me a voicemail saying, “I’m doing a TV show, I want you to do something on it, if you think you could do it. You probably won’t do it, but I wanna talk to you.” [laughs] And then yeah, that’s how it started. And then we met and he told me his idea and then I met Jonathan [Krisel, the showrunner] separately and then the three of us met and just talked about the show.
How has the character changed since that initial meeting?
Initially, it was gonna be that he’s a — which he is — a down-and-out rodeo clown with a personal assistant. And then it was like, “How could he have money for a personal assistant?” So they changed it to an insurance agent. But other than that, I think that Zach’s first impression of me was that I was — because I was — kind of timid when we met at the open mic — very, you know, trying to get along with everybody. And my first impression of him was definitely like, “Oh my God, he’s great with everybody.” So that is in their relationship, but it’s not really supposed to be who we are in real life.
What’s funny about this kind of back and forth between them — where Zach’s one of the nicest people in the world, so him being mean is kind of just funny in a way — I was curious how you thought that would transfer to the audience who’s seen him as the character. Maybe they like Zach Galifanakis because they like Zach Galifianakis, so they’ll cut him some slack even though he’s mean to Martha. But do you think that’s the same level of laughter they’d get out of it if they don’t know, or if they don’t think about Zach being Zach — they just think of him as Chip Baskets?
I don’t know. I know that his — and he mentioned it today — “Between Two Ferns” interviewer character is mean to people for no reason, rude to people.
But I think there’s something about Zach that’s very lovable, so people know that he’s [nice]. I don’t think people ever feel like, “God, that guy’s a dick!” you know? They just sense that he’s just being absurd.
He’d probably get less work if people just thought of him as being a jerk.
I think people who love his movies and “Between Two Ferns,” they see that he’s a lovable person.
What do you think Martha’s main motivation is for doing everything she does for him?
Well, they don’t explicitly explain it, but I feel like it’s assumed that she’s very lonely and also maybe has a crush on him, or probably has a crush on him. But she never hits on him. She jokes about that, but it’s funny because she’s not hitting on him. Can I tell you something ridiculous that Zach did one time on the set and that has to do with people hitting on each other?
I was talking to this guy who’s doing technical [work] — and the cast and crew are all really tight, so if somebody’s new, I’d try to talk to them so they wouldn’t feel left out. Between takes we were just talking, just waiting for them to set up the next shot, and Zach walked by and handed me a little folded up piece of paper, and I opened it and it said [laughs], “Must you hit on every man on the set?”
It made me laugh really hard, and I showed it to the guy, because I thought he would think it was funny because we weren’t hitting on each other. But it made him uncomfortable, so I felt bad.
[laughs] Well, that’s still a great joke.
Zach’s always funny, and it’s never like some comedians where sometimes you’re like, “Could you just turn it off for a minute?” Because he’s not obnoxious. He’s just fucking funny all the time.
As you said earlier, he thought of you for this part, but how much of the character’s brought out from your personality specifically, and how much is it you trying to project something that’s in the script?
I’m not a good actor, so the parts where her feelings are hurt or whatever, or she’s sad for some reason, I would definitely [channel past events]. There were times for sure in high school and then times in my 20s, too, where I was as isolated as this character probably was in Bakersfield; like, as desperate for friendship as she is. Once I started doing stand-up is when I really started to have a bunch of friends, so that made me sad about doing the show, which is the same as, like, seeing Louie doing some of the sad stuff [on “Louie”]. This is really real stuff that people struggle with, that’s really sad because I hope it doesn’t bum people out, but then I saw the first five episodes and I didn’t feel like they were depressing at all. I thought they were funny, but definitely parts of it are sweet and sad.
That makes perfect sense. And I think the scene for me that defined what you’re talking about is when — it’s such a great joke, but it’s also such an honest moment — when we find out in the third episode that the dog your character adopts is a coyote. It’s incredibly funny, and I think it says a lot about your character. It shows just how much she cares and how much she wants to make a connection. She wants to help, but, at the same time, then you’ve got Zach’s reaction to it, where he’s almost annoyed, but also worried about you. So there’s a lot that goes into that as well as being really, really funny.
I feel like that scene when we find out [about the coyote], Zach and Jonathan changed it a little when we shot it. It’s a little different than it was in the script, but the whole idea of her accidentally adopting a coyote that she thinks is a dog was [always there]. And that thing about the character that you’re talking about is definitely the writers’, including Jonathan and Zach. I initially went into the pilot as, like, “This character’s just supposed to be me, but kind of just Zach’s impression of me when we first met.” And when I went to the writers’ room, when they were writing all the episodes, they’ve actually created a character — a real separate character that’s not just me. I can’t think of an example, but there are several where some stand-up comic will be on a sitcom and they’re just doing their stand-up persona, and they figure out how to fit them into a sitcom.
Well, honestly, you could say that Jerry Seinfeld pretty much did that. That was a lot of his old stuff.
But I feel like the writers — Sam [Hunter], Graham [Wagner], and Rebecca [Drysdale], and then Jonathan and Zach and Louis C.K. — are involved in it, too. They created an actual, fully fleshed-out character and I definitely don’t have the acting experience or ability to have been the one to do that. Like, I memorized my lines. [laughs] I got up on time, and I went in with a positive attitude.
[At this point in the interview, Ms. Kelly stops a passerby to say a quick hello, and thank her for speaking with her earlier. It is presumed to be another journalist, in part because she’s wearing a TCA badge, but also because Ms. Kelly will later wave at another journalist who doesn’t see her, which draws a disappointed frown from the loving actress. After a handshake and smile, Ms. Kelly politely continues with our interview.]
So I didn’t know what I was doing at all, and they all created something and then just gave me direction on how to do what they wanted. So when people talk about it being deadpan, that’s definitely my sense of humor, but the whole depth of the character is all the writers’ and the director’s, I feel.
So, in regards to that, what was your process like? Did you ask a lot of questions? Did you want to know where she was going? Was it more like, ‘Let’s just see the script, understand it and go from there’?
Definitely. There were some things where I don’t understand why this is happening and sometimes then they’d be like, “Yeah, maybe we can do it this way instead,” if it was something I didn’t understand why this character would do that. But sometimes it would be like, “This is why,” and then I’d get it.
That makes sense. Sometimes you just gotta ask the right questions.
I still didn’t know — probably ’til close to the end of shooting — I finally asked, “So the Martha character, does she have a crush on Chip?” And they were like, “Well, yeah, she kinda does.” [laughs] I mean, she doesn’t ever make a move on it, but I think it’s assumed that that’s why she puts up with whatever he does.
All that being said, if you see something like “Baskets,” there’s just little moments that pop out, and your character’s definitely somebody who really stands out.
Aww, I appreciate that. Next to the time I got to spend with my niece and nephew when they were really tiny — I’m still crazy about them, but I got to see them every day when they were babies — next to that, this is the sweetest, most fun thing I’ve ever gotten to do. So, I’m really lucky.
Was there a specific challenge, or maybe a specific scene that was really hard for you to do, or just kinda knocked you back a little bit?
[Our conversation is briefly put on hold as a dog being walked by its owner ignores everyone else in the crowded hallway and walks directly up to Ms. Kelly, who lovingly reaches down and pets the tiny white poodle.]
Hi, little one! [to the owner] Your dog’s really cute.
[At the behest of its owner, the puppy reluctantly scurries away, but it doesn’t ask for attention from anyone else as it walks out of the hotel. Only Ms. Kelly was worthy of its love.]
I’m not sure if I can tell you what it was, but it’s in one of the last or second to last episodes. I’m not sure I can tell you. Yeah, I probably would ruin it if I told you, but there was one scene that I did say, “Do we really have to do this?” And then Zach was like, “No!” Because he’s so sweet, he was like, “If you’re really uncomfortable, we don’t have to do this.” And Jonathan was like, “I think the audience would like to see it.” So I said, “I think you’re overestimating what the audience wants to see happen between these two characters.” But then it worked. It was fine. Actually, there was a scene where Jonathan wanted me to scream and I couldn’t. I almost never scream in real life, and I just couldn’t do it. And I was like, “I wonder if he’s gonna fire me.” But he didn’t. [laughs]
That would’ve been quite the story to tell: “I got fired from a TV show because I couldn’t scream.”
I wouldn’t have blamed him, because I feel like you get paid more than any other kind of job for doing something really fun, where everybody treats you like royalty all of a sudden if you’re one of the actors, and you’re not really doing anything to deserve to be treated that way — but you’re treated that way. So if you can’t do what the director asks you to do, they have every right to fire you. But I’m glad they didn’t. And Jonathan, I could tell he was disappointed, but he didn’t act mad or anything because he’s also a very sweet person.
So, stepping back a little bit and getting into your stand-up style, when did you decide you wanted to do stand-up? What about stand-up is really appealing to you?
Honestly, it’s weird, because I was thinking about this the other day. I saw Prince on the Purple Rain tour — I was in high school and that was my first concert, and people went apeshit when he came out. And I remember [laughs] feeling like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen. I wanna be where he is, where people are losing their minds to see you.” But I don’t have any musical talent, and then with acting, if you’re in a play, or you’re in a movie, it’s not like there’s an audience that cheers when you come out. But if you’re a stand-up, you get to have a big reaction from people when it goes well, and it’s like a high. So that’s when I first started wanting it; to feel that euphoric, being plugged into a crowd of people. But it took me a long time to do it because I had terrible stage fright. I would go into an open mic once a year, bomb, take a year to work up the nerve again. I did that for like, four or five years, and then in ‘98 is when I met Zach and it was an open mic where everyone was really supportive of each other.
Were you in Los Angeles?
Yeah. It was a place called Peterson’s, a coffee house that every Tuesday they had an open mic. It was like Tig Notaro, that’s where I met her, Zach, Maria Bamford sometimes — all these really funny people. And I started drinking before going on stage, which helped the stage fright — I don’t drink anymore. It’s a good idea for a while, and then for some people like me, it tips over into not being a good idea anymore. But at the time, it’s what helped me past the stage fright. So, in ‘98 is when I really started doing it all the time.
So then did you just keep up with that and go on auditions?
I never went on auditions because I would be terrible at it, so I just did stand-up. And then about two years into it, I moved to Austin, Texas.
It’s great for comedy and for being an alcoholic, so that was a great time for a while. And then when I had been doing it for about four years, I got to do stand-up on TV a couple times and got to go to the Montreal festival and stuff. But then my drinking sort of overtook my ambition and so it sort of derailed me for a while, but then once I got through the difficult beginning of sobriety, I loved stand-up sober more than I ever did when I was drinking. It’s more fun because you’re actually more present. You can feel the good stuff and you can know if it doesn’t go well, it’s not because you shot yourself in the foot by going up drunk. So it’s way more fun for me sober. And then I just wasn’t really doing anything when Zach called. I had recently moved back in with my parents.
Were you in LA again? Or were you still in Austin?
I moved back here again. They lived in Torrance, and I was really depressed and had an eating disorder. So I was bingeing and really depressed. Sorry, that’s too much information, but my life was just borderline in the toilet. And then I was walking my dog, and I come back and Zach had left me a message. Between the time that we first talked about it and when it happened, I started to go to a recovery program for that stuff and had been sober for several years, but went into another program for that. So my life was already a lot better by the time we started. If I hadn’t done that stuff, I wouldn’t have been able to do those regardless. But this definitely was like, if you just came home from the grocery store, and someone was like, “Hey, I left you like, a fuckin’ treasure chest with a bunch of magic in it.” I don’t know, I’ve said it’s like winning the lottery, but it’s totally not about the monetary part of it. Although I love money — I love the money that I got for the show — that’s not why it’s so amazing.