Laurie Kilmartin – Writer and Comedienne
Last Woman Standing
By Caroline Cox
For a woman with so many accomplishments, writer and comedienne Laurie Kilmartin doesn’t consider herself a “professional woman.” After gaining notoriety among the comedy community through stand-up shows at clubs and festivals where she entertained thousands, Kilmartin went on to do stints on Comedy Central, Showtime and on shows like Oprah and The Rachel Maddow Show.
Her success came to a head when she was a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2010. A northern California native, former competitive swimmer and mother to a 4-year-old, Kilmartin has been spending her days as a writer for Conan O’Brien’s show Conan since September 2010 (her jokes make up approximately one-fifth of the ones O’Brien uses in his monologue each night). Of the 15 writers, she is the only woman.
Here, Kilmartin talks to PINK about the first time she knew she was funny, what it’s like to be the only woman at work and why she never takes vacations.
PINK: What’s the secret to your success?
Laurie Kilmartin: Figuring my way out of situations when I’m backed into a corner. I’ve been a comedian and a comedy writer, which are pretty unstable professions, and if one’s not bringing in money, I lean on the other and go back and forth. With that kind of lifestyle, you get used to constant unemployment. When you’re working at a comedy club for a week and then you have to get your next job, you’re used to hustling and always feeling like, “This is the last week I’ll ever work, I’ll never get another job.” A lifetime of that has made me creative and adept to wriggling out of dire financial situations and finding another way to make money.
PINK: What was your first job?
LK: I taught swim lessons in northern California. I was a competitive swimmer, and I taught kids how to swim during the summer.
PINK: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
LK: This is probably opposite of the advice people are usually told, but I always tell myself I can quit if I want to. I’ve never quit comedy, but I always have that in the back of my mind. Most people say you should never quit and that you should work really hard toward a goal. But you can get focused on something without realizing it isn’t exactly what you what to do or it doesn’t fulfill you. I’ve been doing comedy for 24 or 25 years, I still love it and I can’t imagine not doing it. Giving myself that vow gave me the wiggle room to keep going.
PINK: When did you first realize this was what you wanted to do?
LK: In fourth grade, a pack of mean girls had ostracized me. One day, we had an assignment where we had to write a story and read it to the class. When I read my story, it made the meanest girl [in the group] laugh. She was still horrible to me afterward, but for that second, it was like I had won – I had beat her for one small second. The remainder of the time she was mean to me didn’t hurt as much, because I knew I’d made her laugh. Laughter is a victory because it’s someone admitting you’re funny. I’m sure she didn’t want to admit that, but it snuck up on her. Then, when I started to go to stand-up comedy shows in the late ‘80s, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
PINK: What’s your biggest professional weakness?
LK: Thinking I’m not good enough. I’m always saying, “I just want to be a little bit better before I push myself in this direction.” I try to wait until I’m an A-plus, whereas you have guys that are B-minuses, but they have the confidence of Albert Einstein. It’s always shocking to me how there are so few women who are average but extremely confident in themselves, and so many who are really smart but are constantly downgrading themselves. I’ve sat on a lot of ideas thinking they weren’t good enough, then realizing they were more than good enough.
PINK: What are the pros and cons of working in a male-dominated environment?
LK: I wish there were more female writers. It’s kind of lonely being the only woman all the time. I think if you were to talk to any guy and ask him how he’d feel if he was working with 14 other women, he’d say, “Yeah, that’s tough sometimes.” But everyone I work with is really nice, so there’s no complaint there. Women just talk to each other in a certain way and in a certain language that guys don’t really understand, so sometimes I miss having that shorthand I’d have with a female writer.
PINK: You have a 4-year-old son. How do you manage the Life/Work balance?
LK: I’ve become a lot more organized. I don’t feel like I really balance it, though. With this move, I’ll go from an hour commute to a 12-15 minute commute, which will make a big difference in the amount of time I can spend with my son. [Editor’s note: the day of the interview, Kilmartin was in the process of moving to a new home in Los Angeles.] I also do a lot of stuff in the middle of the night. I don’t get a lot of sleep, which I’m sure will cause me to die earlier, but the years you lose will be taken off the worst part of your life, in your 80s or 90s, so who cares? [Laughs]
PINK: How do you unwind? Where do you go on vacation?
LK: I’ve never taken a vacation. When I was just doing stand-up, I traveled so much, so traveling isn’t necessarily a vacation to me. Usually, when I have a week off, I’ll try to just be with my son and work. I’m so paranoid about the economy that I’ll need a million dollars in the bank before I take a vacation. It just seems like such a luxury to take time for myself.
PINK: What’s your favorite book or one you’re currently reading?
LK: I’m trying to reread some Fitzgerald and The Kennedys. I’m a big Kennedys geek. But it’s hard, because I get home and I’m so tired – I put my kid to sleep and prepare for the next day. Even trying to read at bedtime, I get through five pages and I’m out. Maybe one day I’ll be in the hospital for some reason and I can read all the books I want to read, then once I’m finished I’ll be cured!
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
LK: You probably wouldn’t know from my [stand-up] act that I’m actually a pretty decent mother. I write a lot of horrendous jokes about my son and how much I hate being a parent, but they’re just jokes. In the real day-to-day, he’s actually doing really well. But don’t tell anyone. [Laughs]
PINK: What’s a professional goal you have yet to achieve?
LK: I’d love to do a set on Letterman. As a comedian, I’ve never done that, and all my contemporaries have.
PINK: How do you define success?
LK: Small picture: getting 60 percent of my to-do list done for the day. Big picture: not being devastated by failures. Taking the time to process things that didn’t go the way I wanted them to, then figuring a way out of it. Success to me is constantly rebounding.
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