Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as the “godmother of alternative comedy,” Beth Lapides, creator of LA’s long-running UnCabaret, delivers a funny and heartfelt meditation on the power of decisions, the place for regret, and the space for grace in her new audiobook, So You Need to Decide. In addition to recording the book, Beth is a writer, comedian, host, teacher, coach, and so much more.
We had a chance to talk to Beth about her new audiobook, her career, how she got her start, and whether she thinks creativity can be taught. All in all, it was an incredible conversation with an extraordinarily talented, creative woman.
Scott (GNN): Hello. How are you, Beth?
Beth Lapides (BL): I’m well, thanks. How are you?
GNN: I’m doing all right. It’s odd, I don’t even know how to introduce you. Normally I’m interviewing an author or an actor or a comedian. You are a producer, writer, teacher, and coach. My goodness. You’re even a haiku-ist!
BL: Haikuist! [Laughs]
GNN: It’s an actual job title, right? So, how would you summarize yourself? Again, that’s a lot of titles!
BL: It’s a lot. It is. It’s a lot. I made a T-shirt this year that says, “It’s a lot,” because everybody was going around just saying, “It’s a lot.” We have to handle so much. Yeah, it’s a lot. I made the T-shirts and then I was listening to NPR one day and on Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal was describing the situation and the economic thing and the interest rates and this and the that and “What do you think, Mary?” And she was like, “I don’t know, Kai. It’s very complicated.” And Kai was like, “Yeah, it’s a lot.” And I just thought it’s just so much.
Anyway, yes, I do a lot of different things. I’m a, I’d say, a multimedia person and a multi-hyphenate. But in some ways, Scott, I would say I’m a writer. That all of it just stems from, right? I mean, being a comedian is being a writer. Being an author is a writer. I have only produced to protect my own writing and my own projects. I never had a lust to produce, and I do it begrudgingly, though, I do it.
GNN: So, basically, you’re a creativity Swiss Army knife? Or a writing Swiss Army knife?
BL: Yeah. I like that. Yeah. I love that because the idea of tools and what tools do you have? I mean, I think in some ways, as we go on, we’re trying to figure out– there’s a thing where you go, you’re using your old tools in a new situation. So especially now as the whole world is changing, we all do need the new tools.
GNN: Things are changing a little bit, right?
BL: A little bit. A little bit, yeah. [Laughs]
GNN: It is a crazy time. I’m glad my boss at my last job back in like 2017 or so, told us, “We’re going to start trying this thing called Zoom.” I was all upset because I’m like, “Come on, man, we just got on Microsoft Teams. What do we need a new thing for?” And he’s like, “I think that this is going to be the next big thing.” I thank him every day…it’s become a Zoom world.
BL: Yeah. Wow. When we pivoted from UnCabaret to Zoom in March, it was crazy. We ended up with a great team and just in the first couple of shows really navigated it and learned how to do a good Zoom show. I mean, in some ways, Innovator would be one of my titles. I do enjoy that.
GNN: I don’t know what nine is. I know as high as, “octuple-threat.” You can’t do anymore. You’ll have to replace one. [Laughs]
BL: [Laughs] Too funny.
GNN: So, nowadays, superhero movies are everything. So, let’s start with your origin story.
BL: Not the 20-minute origin story! [Laughs]
GNN: No, not the, “I was born in a shack in West Virginia. My father was a coal miner and my mother was a seamstress,” origin story. I’m just curious how you got your start. Were performing and writing and creativity important to you right out of the gate, or did you start on a different path?
BL: I’m going to say yes, they really were. Well, I don’t know about right out of the gate, but I would say a lot of my origin story, which might be too much in-depth to get into here, happened. I was five and I had a blood disease, and I was in the hospital for some time. And I’m fine and I felt fine even then, but I was bruising easily and it was an autoimmune thing. And when you’re five and you’re in the hospital for some time, but you feel okay, but they keep taking your blood all the time, and it really hurts, and people are lying about that it’s not going to…that’s a lot. That’s a lot. And that is, perhaps, artist-forming. I’ve met a lot of creative people who were sick as kids, and I’ve always wondered, did being so sensitive cause you to become sick, or did you get sick and then become so sensitized that you had to become an artist?
But at any rate, a lot of the things happened. I mean, there are so many memories there that I can look forward to in my life. When I left the hospital, I was actually not allowed to fall. And there are humiliating memories of ice skating and having pillows strapped on. Not being allowed to fall is very life-shaping. [Laughs]
GNN: Right. You’re usually told as a kid that you have to fall and get back up…
BL: Yes. But if it’s life-threatening…
GNN: Right! [Laughs]
BL: So, I do remember really hiding. I was given like a house. Not a little toy house, but a child-sized house that I could go into and read. And I just read obsessively as a child. I just loved reading. I loved writing. I learned to write on a…it was like sandpaper letters, and you would trace the letters on a thing, and then you’d go to the blackboard. It was very sensual. Reading and writing were very sensual activities to me as a child. So, I’m going to say that was the early formation of writing.
GNN: I also liked to write as a kid. It was about 10th grade when I decided writing is something I wanted to pursue in college, and I had a mother and a father who were very practical people. And my father was like, “You want to write? How are you going to make money?” Was your family supportive of the writing?
BL: My parents were a little bit in the camp of, “whatever makes you happy.” I mean, I heard that, but they also weren’t artists, and so they were a little also baffled. My mom would take me to a museum, and I didn’t get much guidance. I said I was going to move to New York. Then it just sort of became, “I’m going to grow up and be an artist.” I didn’t really know what that meant, but that’s what I wanted to be. So, I think they were supportive without being supportive, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
GNN: Basically, they weren’t a hindrance. They didn’t try to stop you.
BL: They weren’t a hindrance. I said, “I’m going to move to New York,” and my dad was like, “Don’t let the Big Apple make applesauce out of you.”
GNN: That’s an amazing quote! Did he really say that? [Laughs]
BL: He worked in New York. We lived in New Haven, and he commuted, and so New York was in our family. My great-grandparents lived there, and it was part of our world, but it wasn’t part of my life if you know what I mean.
GNN: I get it. I grew up in northeast New Jersey, but New York was like a fairytale place.
BL: Yeah, I just love New York. I mean, when I moved to New York, I just felt like I’d come. I was like, “Finally, I’m here. I’m here.”
GNN: So, at what age around were you when you moved out?
BL: Of my home? I went to college and then right from college I moved to New York.
GNN: And was there something there already, like a job or internship waiting for you? Or did you just move there and hope to find something? It always me when performers say, “I just picked up and moved to L.A. I didn’t have anything waiting for me.”
BL: I had been saving money at all my summer jobs, had enough to move with, a few thousand dollars. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, and I got a loft. I’d gone to Brown, and I stayed one extra summer to make more money and on August 31, I moved to New York with…yeah, I didn’t know what. I mean, I had some skills. I was a nude model for art school, and I knew I could do that. And I don’t know, I was just thinking, “This is my destiny. I’m sure it’ll work out.”
GNN: Of all the people I’ve talked to in entertainment, most just go for it, but some have a backup plan or some sort of goal like, “If I don’t make it in five years, I’m done.” Did you have a backup plan or anything like that?
BL: I don’t have any problem with it for other people. I’ve never been able to do that. Now, I do work with my manager to try to look ahead and make a plan, but I have something called executive function disorder. So, even though I work, I love to work. In second grade, I was saying like, “When are we going to get homework? I mean, Where’s the homework?” I was early-onset workaholism.
But I think I’m somewhere in between. I mean, I remember my aunt asked me, “What’s your B plan?” And I was just like, “Oh, gosh, there is no B plan.” But I also do think that I have stayed flexible in terms of what the A plan is. In some ways, the plan was just to be an artist. That was the plan. So, that has taken many shapes. I didn’t feel like I have to be an artist with a Soho gallery or a writer on the bestseller list by 30. I didn’t have exactly what bucket that was going to fit into. I was in New York working at a coffee shop. We still had coffee shops…and a very happening coffee shop. And I got to meet a ton of people. It was a great first job, and people would come in with band flyers, and it was great. I met guys, I met girls, and it was just fun. And I remember I got my first NEA grant there when I was working there, and I was like, “Oh, well, now I can quit today.” And I did. [Laughs] I gave them notice that day, and I thought, “Well, this is it. My last day job.” And in some ways, yes. But in some ways, producing is a day job for me, I would consider it. There are just a lot of things you do within what that means. Staying adaptable has been my B plan.
GNN: I am certainly not as adaptable as you. I’ve been laid off two times and I’ve handled that well, but I can’t imagine doing things as different as you, but they do seem like branches on the same tree.
BL: Yeah, they are. I mean, it all feels like I just do one thing, which is to be me. But in a case like this book, this audiobook So You Need to Decide, was I thinking I need to write an audiobook and do an audiobook? No. But then I’ve had people listen to it that says, “It seems like everything you’ve ever done has led up to this moment. Your radio show and your podcast and this and UnCabaret and knowing the people in the conversation, your stories.”
So, yeah, did I ever think I’d do that? No. But I have always loved innovating. I mean, I was a performance artist. I think I was going to say this. When I worked at the coffee shop, I was xeroxing somebody’s press pack who was a performance artist. And I thought, “Oh, I could do that.” Because I missed performing. I knew I didn’t want to be a dancer. I knew I didn’t exactly want to be an actress. It hadn’t occurred to me to be a stand-up comedian. I don’t know why. Stand-up comedy wasn’t quite what it is now yet. And I just was like, “Oh, I can do that. I could be a performance artist. That’s what I want to do.” I was making visual art, and I was discouraged by the art world because it was very objective. It sounds so stupid. When you’re a young person, you don’t necessarily realize what it means to do that thing that you’re going to do. And I didn’t really grasp that being a visual artist was going to be a lot of stuff, Scott. There’s going to be just stuff everywhere. And it was overwhelming for me. I’m not even 5’2″, and it was a lot of stuff to manage. There was one summer I took these life-size books, and I would bring them to Washington Square Park and perform in front of them. And, oh, I learned a lot of life lessons.
GNN: I was watching your reel, and I saw you on Sex and the City. Did you ever do anything like that in real life as performance art?
BL: Not exactly, but it was such a full-circle moment to be able to go on to Sex and the City. They flew me back to New York to do this part, and it was so coming home. It was so how life is like a spiral, not a circle, like coming back to the same thing on a different level. So not exactly like that. Even my performance art was multimedia. And then it started to get funny. I got very funny for a performance artist, and at a certain point, I thought I should just try stand-up. I mean, there’s a limit to what can happen to you in life as a performance artist. Unless you’re Marina Abramovic and you really want to be weird.
GNN: Was that the character?
BL: Yeah, they actually licensed somebody’s work. She’s done these pieces and it’s brilliant work. And even playing her was very astounding. So, I just got tired. I’d be on tour, and people on a plane were, “What are you? A performance artist? what do you do?” It just got so boring, and then you don’t want to say you’re a comedian. I mean, Scott, what are you going to say you are? That’s why “writer” is perfect. You’re a writer. People are like, “Ah, okay.” It’s a very good thing to be on a plane. What are you? Oh, I’m a writer. I have no questions for you.
GNN: Right. Exactly. If you tell them you’re a comedian, it’s probably, “Make me laugh. Tell me a joke.”
BL: Yeah, it’s the worst. It’s really…make me laugh or let me tell you a joke.
BL: Then you have to go, I’m not that kind of comedian. And they’re like, well, what other kind of comedian is there?
GNN: Right. Here’s a question, just out of left field. As a comedian, how do you feel about the pun?
BL: Why do you think they call it punishment?
GNN: See, now, that’s a very cyclical answer in that you said it, but you used it. I don’t know how to feel about that!
BL: Well, I will say that joke says is a well-placed one; you have to tip your hat to a well-placed one, but they’re not the highest form of comedy.
GNN: That is true. So, you mentioned UnCabaret, and there’s no way you’re going to get through the interview without talking about it. It’s been going on for 25 years.
GNN: Wow! Really?
BL: I’ve stopped counting.
GNN: You have really gathered some talented people to participate in UnCabaret. Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswald, Andy Dick. It is ridiculous the people you’ve gotten involved with there. So, how was that seed planted for UnCabaret?
BL: Well, that seed was planted in…a lot happened. As I’m talking about this story of being an artist and a comedian and my own transformation, when I came to Los Angeles, I was so discouraged by how much the comedy clubs were rooted in a showcase mentality, number one. And everybody was trying to get their sitcom. For somebody who was very experiential, that was hard. And it was still very hard to be a woman in the clubs. I just was uncomfortable. But I loved comedy. I fell in love with comedy. I mean, I had really fallen in love with this art form, but I was still going back and forth.
There was one night at the Comedy Store when I was following Andrew Dice Clay, and Andrew Dice Clay was doing his usual women-hating act. And I was standing there and hating him, and I was hating the audience for laughing at him. And I was hating myself for hating everybody. And I don’t do well with hate. And I just kind of froze. And I just got this idea in my mind, there has to be a better way. There has to be a better way. And that sort of started running through my mind as almost a mantra, “There has to be a better way.” And I didn’t know what it was, but I was open to finding it.
And then when you say, what’s your origin story? And there was a time in the hospital when the kids were playing doctor, and I was like, “Doctor in the hospital? Can’t we think of a better game?” But I never said anything, and I flashed on that as I was going around the comedy clubs in Los Angeles at that time and thinking there’s got to be a better way. I flashed on myself in the hallway at the hospital not wanting to play doctor but never suggesting a different game. And it just dawned on me, if you think there’s a better way, you’re the one who’s probably going to have to suggest the game. You can’t go around thinking there should be another game if you’re not going to try to make another game. And I still didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was doing a show one night at a small arty venue. I would do the comedy clubs, and then I would do my arty venues, and we were all doing a million different kinds of things. There was comedy everywhere, from family restaurants to coffee shops. And I was doing this show at The Women’s Building, it was called. And they were really responding. I mean, let me tell you, Scott, it was one of those nights where it was like, “Wow, I wish I was this funny!” And a good audience does make you funnier.
So, it was a great, great night. But after at the meet and greet, I was like, “When was the last time you guys laughed? Because I’m not quite as funny as you thought. I was a little desperate”. And they were like, “Oh, we don’t laugh. We’re women and we’re artists and we’re lesbians. And if we go to comedy clubs, they make fun of us”. And I said, “Yeah, well, I’m going to come back from tour and I’m going to make you a show. It’s going to be un-homophobic, un-xenophobic, un-misogynous. It’ll be the UnCabaret”. And it really was a download. I mean, it wasn’t like me sitting at my desk. It was me at the moment with this audience that was so hungry, and of course, me as a performer being hungry for this great audience. It was really like a match made in heaven.
So, I did start making shows there, and they went great. It was a small space, and they were sold out. And the performers also…the other element was I wasn’t the only person frustrated. Everyone I knew who was working in the comedy clubs who was interesting was also frustrated. And I don’t mean people just trying to get in. Somebody like Dana Gould, who had already done an HBO One Night Stand, but he was so ready to explode with so much material that there was no place to do it and no place to explore and expand.
So, I didn’t have a super-clear idea of what UnCabaret was, except for what it wasn’t at the beginning, and different people did it. And then the space lost its funding. I think of that as the insemination phase. I moved to a venue called Highways and then did a run of late-night Saturday nights with Taylor Negron and Judy Toll. And that was really the gestation. And a lot of what is UnCabaret now was formed with the three of us doing this summer-long late-night Saturday night run. Taylor was just an incredible storyteller and Judy was so confessional and so personal and so raw, naked. Taylor was also poetic. I had a lot of big ideas. I also love to do the stories and there was a social consciousness to the show. There was a goofy…just really what it was, that it was grounded in the now, that every show was going to be different, that we were never there repeating what the last show was, we were exploring and the whole show hung together as a show. It was always my idea that it was not people showcasing just one after another, that there was an event, that this would be a carryover from the art world. That there was an event that everyone was a part of, so the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and that an audience member wouldn’t leave and go, “Oh, somebody said something about red hair. Who was that?” It’s just this parade of people, and you’re so tired by the time you leave. And I loved the idea of doing a show where everybody was commenting on everybody, that it was really a conversation. I mean, when I fell in love with comedy, probably as a child, it was from late-night talk shows. And I loved mostly the part where they were sitting and talking, not the part where they were standing up by themselves. That being said, when I was 10, I did ask for a microphone for Hanukkah. [laughter] And my parents bought me a toy microphone, and I unwrapped it and very ungratefully said, “A toy? What am I going to do with that?” And they looked at me and they were like, “Well, what are you going to do with a real microphone?” I was like, “I really have no idea, but I just know I need one.”
So, if you think about fate…when we finished Highways, I took a break and I ran my campaign to make First Lady an elected position. [Laughs]
GNN: I think you forgot to leave political candidate out of my octuple threat. Now you’re a dodecahedron threat. I don’t even know at this point.
BL: I think of that as really a performance art piece, but…
GNN: I saw that on your reel…you wanted to make First Lady an elected position and the White House not the White House, among other things.
BL: Yeah, as pink. But it was grounded in a real idea that I had a joke about. The real idea was that this person works very hard for America. It’s a job. They can’t have another job while they have that job. So, if it’s a job, we should pay them. But if we’re going to pay them, well, then we should pick them. I mean, we should pick them. Right? We should pick them separately from the President, and the idea was that the presidency would be more available to single people and more available to women, and trans was not part of the conversation then, but certainly should be.
Anyway, when I finished that campaign and I was ready to come back and I got a call from Jean-Pierre Boccara, who was an esteemed nightclub entrepreneur, and he was opening a new club. He asked me if I wanted to do something there, and I said UnCabaret, a comedy show I’m working on. He said, “Would it be funny?” And I said, “No, of course not.” [Laughs] And we booked it for three Sundays. And the Sunday part was so serendipitous. I think Sunday was a very helpful part of UnCabaret because it was really about being in the now. Sunday is really a day when you do sort of assess the moment, you assess the week, you kind of look ahead. I mean, now everything is so 24/7, but there’s still a flavor about Sunday and much more so when we began on UnCabaret. At that point…so I never know where to count the beginning of UnCabaret from because most people think of the beginning of LunaPark, but it had already been through these from the late ’80s to ’92, through these other phases. Anyway, when we opened at LunaPark on Sundays and then we ran there from the week they opened until the week they closed Sunday nights. And that’s history, and the rest is even more history. [Laughs]
GNN: And people can learn about that. There’s a website UnCabaret.com where, as you said, you’re still doing Zoom shows. People can watch.
BL: Yes. I mean, I just want to be so clear UnCabaret’s still in the present. We’re doing Zoom shows. We’re doing live shows. And, I mean, this audiobook So You Need to Decide is an extension of UnCabaret very clearly. I mean, it’s a Recorded Books production, but it’s very UnCabaret in the sense that…I’m not saying I’m a host of the book, but it is sort of modeled on me coming out and telling my story. I’m bringing in other people. It’s a conversation. The whole thing is a conversation, UnCabaret. And a lot of the people in the book, Bob Odenkirk, Jamie Gould, Margaret Cho, Tim Bagley, Alex Edelman, Isaac Mizrahi who’s never done our live show but has done the Zoom, Phoebe Bridgers who is a music phenom and is on it, Ryan O’Connell, Julia Sweeney… can’t forget Julia, Judy Gold, Jen Kirkman, Byron Bowers, incredible, Guy Brennan. I mean, every single person. Scott Frank, who’s not on UnCabaret. He’s a writer and director of a little show you might’ve heard of called Queen’s Gambit.
GNN: My wife and I want to watch that. It looks fantastic. Those are some incredible names.
BL: I mean, I’m just looking at the list over. I want to say every name: Aparna Nancherla, Josh Gondelman, so many great conversations. And that, to me, is one way that UnCabaret has been important and different in shaping really how the whole of comedy has evolved.
GNN: I tried to find a term to describe it, and I went to different sites…UnCabaret is “unhacky,” I think I saw that in one description.
BL: Yes. I like that. Yeah.
GNN: I also saw the phrase “alternative comedy. Based on how you described it, it’s not da da da da da da, punchline, da da da da da da, punchline. It’s storytelling. It’s organic. Is organic a good word?
BL: I love that word as a description of it. Yeah, organic is a great word. But within alternative comedy, I mean, there are a lot of different shows. And different people had different and have different ideas about what alternative means. I mean, sometimes some people take alternative to mean there’s a certain sort of drug; there’s one part of alternative comedy that was kind of high. There was that part. There is a geeky part. I mean, the whole of what was happening at the Nerdist. I mean, that was a huge part of how alternative comedy exploded, and that was very based on the nerd culture. I mean, I guess probably, if you’re in it, nerd and geek mean two different things, but for those of us slightly outside of the nerd-geek world, certainly, that element was a big element in alternative comedy. A more female place, a place where also it wasn’t us against them, which was something that I really had a problem with at the comedy clubs. I once got a review early in my career that said, “I’m sure she was hilarious and people were laughing, but, I mean, the audience was on her side.” I mean, it’s supposed to be a fight or it’s not. So, there’s that.
So, part of the alternative is also that the audience is part of the conversation, which I think was an alternative. And now, I’m very unattached to the idea of alternative comedy, except I love the idea that there are alternatives. I mean, words that I love are independent, culture, and alternative culture. But mainstream culture swallows things up and digests them, and they become part of the culture. It just helps people find things more than anything. I mean, I’ve had so many people come to the show and be like, “I mean, it’s just comedy.” And it’s like, “Yeah, it’s just comedy. That’s what it is.” But then I’ve had other people who learn about comedy and then come back and say, “Oh, I came here. I thought I liked comedy. Then I went to a comedy club. Didn’t like that so much.”
GNN: I am learning. I wasn’t a big comedy guy until the last maybe five years or so. And I started doing these interviews, and it’s kind of funny. One of the first standup comedians I remember seeing, and the only reason I went to see him is that he was in Back to the Future. It was Tom Wilson. He is really funny and clean. I don’t mind the foul language, but he was clean, and he was really funny.
BL: I have no issue with language. I tend to not because…I don’t know, I feel staticky when it happens. I’m not morally against it, and I’ve enjoyed a billion comedians who have the foulest language you could possibly imagine. More importantly, I think, it’s not the language as much as, are you willing to talk about uncomfortable things? Are you willing to be vulnerable? Are you willing to be honest? Are you willing to go somewhere where I haven’t been before? If you hear enough comedy, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that joke. Oh, yeah, that thing. Oh, yeah, that premise.” And you just don’t want to be a person who’s just talking; you want to talk about things that people, in their hearts, care about. At the same time, you want to make sure that your perspective is your own and that you work hard enough.
GNN: No, 100%. When it’s part of a natural story and it’s organic, I don’t mind that realness and that rawness. But then I think the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been at a show and not in a good way was Dustin Diamond, he played Screech on Saved by the Bell. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but he performed at our high school reunion, and it was uncomfortable. It was all so forced and vulgar for vulgarity’s sake.
BL: The first comedian I ever saw was probably Dick Gregory, who gave the convocation to my freshman class at Brown and he was funny, but he was so smart and I think I saw him and was like, “Oh, I think I want to be that.” And what is Dick Gregory? He was an activist. He was a comedian. He was a food activist. He was so political and did not fit into the boundaries at all.
GNN: So, do you still watch other comedians? I recently interviewed Paul Poundstone and she said she doesn’t really watch other comedians. Are you a fan of anybody?
BL: I do. Well, I do still watch comedy, though probably less than I would if it didn’t feel like work. But every now and then I do. I’m a fan of everyone who’s on UnCabaret. Let’s just say that, and I see that all the time. So, I’m always in a show with five or six other people whose work I’m watching that I love. So, I’m a fan of every single person that I’ve already mentioned.
Other people, I would love to have in the show and everyone I love. I’ve not been able to book shockingly, but Ronny Chieng. I think his Netflix special is so stellar. It’s just brilliant. It’s just absolutely brilliant and it’s beautiful and it’s beautifully done. Obviously, there are people that were working as I was coming up that I’m a huge fan of that I don’t necessarily watch their work now, but I would say I am a fan of them and they inspired me coming up, and yeah, I’m a fan. Moses Storm has a super interesting special now. Maria Bamford was on our anniversary show. I’m a huge fan of Maria’s. She wasn’t in the book, so I didn’t run off her name, but we have a huge roster of people and I’m a fan of every single person. But to agree with what Paula said, I probably don’t spend a lot of time watching comedy…it’s not my go-to.
GNN: A lot of authors I talk to are the same way. They don’t really read a lot. So, I kind of get it.
BL: A lot of times you want to do something different in your off time because you’re trying to feed the machine. I mean, when you watch stand up, I mean, I’ll look at the first five minutes of anyone’s special just to see and like, “Oh, okay. That’s what they’re doing.” But I’m thinking of a ton of people I love. Ally Wong, whose specials I love, and she’s done UnCabaret a little bit. Wanda Sykes, her last special is so funny. I mean, yeah, I’m a fan of comedians. I’m a fan of comedians, and I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t. I wouldn’t have spent my life making a show that’s about changing comedy and trying to not just change it, but improve the comedy landscape. If I didn’t believe in comedy and I didn’t love comedians.
GNN: So, dream guests for UnCabaret? Who would you pick?
BL: Oh, I think some of those people I just said…Wanda or Ronnie Chang or Russell Brand. Just wild people. I love the wild cards.
GNN: So, now let’s shift to some of your writing. Your first book was Did I Wake You?: Haikus for Modern Living, correct?
BL: That was my first book. That book came about because I had a big pile of papers that were my sets from UnCabaret from the past, at that point, I think it was 10 years. And I was like, “I know there’s a book in here.” Because I was the person who was coming on stage every single week with new material. I was just going so crazy thinking there must be something. And I was like, “There’s a book.” And I was thinking something like Running with Scissors or some sort of memoir form. And I went through with a highlighter, and I said, “I’m just going to go through and I’m just going to circle everything I like.” And then after like six hours, I looked up and I was like, “Oh my God, it’s a book of haiku.” [Laughs] It’s just what it was. I mean, I just saw it. It wasn’t like I set out to write haikus. I had written a few that were haiku, but a lot of the things that really stood out from those 10 years were these small, very concise haiku-esque, and true haiku in the form of 5-7-5 thoughts. Some of them I had to sit and work out a syllable or two, but there were hundreds of them.
GNN: I ask a lot of the creative people I talk to this question. I’m curious about what you have to say. Can creativity be taught? For example, I asked an artist once if someone with no artistic skill, really wants to be an artist, could they learn? Or does some seed or spark of talent have to be there?
BL: Well, if they have that desire the desire is the spark. Burning desire is the spark. And there are so many people who are facile that have a craft. You’re saying if they have no craft talent but if you have the burning desire to do something. And by that, I mean the desire to put in the hours.
I mean, look at the singers who are famous; they’re not always the absolute best singers. Look at who’s huge; they’re not always the best singers, but they have the burning desire to do it. And then they usually have good looks and maybe charisma. The same thing is true in any of the art forms. With painting, a burning desire to be a painter, plus a facility to manipulate physical reality, plus an interest in learning about art, plus an interest in being able to go to openings and schmooze. Every single different art form…being a writer requires less schmoozing than being a painter. Being a musician requires an ability to work with other musicians. But there is a real-world aspect to being a creative person.
So, in comedy, there are people who can’t be funny. I mean, over the years I’ve taught thousands and thousands of people and some of them just wanted to be funnier writers and some of them just wanted to be funnier people and some of them wanted to be standups and some of them wanted to write a memoir that was 10% funny. There have been very few who I’m just like, “You know what…, “but everyone can be a better writer. I mean, everyone is a writer.
Here’s what I truly believe… that everyone is a writer. In the same way that everyone is a singer because talking is singing, everyone has a story. You are writing your own life all the time. So, when you become a writer you’re just basically owning the fact that you’re writing your life. Now, do some people have more of a skill and ability to finesse words and a gift? Yes, some people are gifted, and that person will come before me and I will just be “hallelujah,” and let’s make sure you don’t ever lose this, and you really focus on it. Some people are just going to integrate it into their lives, but it’s like dancing or anything. The arts are so diminished in America. I mean, the arts are the thing that may…Lynda Barry has a great class where she’s teaching people to draw, and people are drawing. And you see Aimee Mann on Instagram doing Lynda Barry exercises. She’s not going to become a cartoonist, but it enriches her, and it’s another means of expression. So yeah. Can anybody become an artist? No, because most people who aren’t doing it don’t have the drive.
GNN: Gotcha. It was funny when I asked one artist, “Can you teach anybody? If they really want to do it?” And he talked through this whole answer, and he kind of started to doubt. Then, he was like, “You know what? You know what? I might be wrong.” He thought about somebody he tried to teach, and it just wasn’t happening.
BL: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard to say you can do it with anyone because there are people and different things. I mean, there are some people who would want to dance. Jen Kirkman, in the book, has a great story about wanting to be a dancer. That was her chosen medium. And in high school, she was told to go to special classes. And she was just like, “I don’t know. I don’t want to drive into Boston every day.” And her mom was like, “Yeah.” But meanwhile, her best friend who also was doing it was taking all of the special classes and doing the things. And then, when she went to audition for college level to get into an academy, they sat her down, and they were like, “Well, why didn’t you study harder and practice more in high school? It’s too late.” And she was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize I had to work that hard at it.”
There are people who will say it’s never too late to be what you might’ve been. There are things that…you just can’t get back that time. You can’t get back the time that you didn’t take the ballet classes when you were twelve. So no, you’re never going to become a professional dancer, but that doesn’t mean that dance isn’t going to enrich your life. Look, there are people who have no ear for singing no matter how much they practice. There are people with two left feet, not to impugn left-footedness. There are people who just are not funny. They just can’t find it. But there’s no one who couldn’t do something creative if they really wanted to.
GNN: That’s a good way to put it. That’s a very good way to put it. That leads to another question I have along the same vein. So, you’re a teacher and a coach. Now, there are people who are extraordinary at what they do. Magic Johnson is one of them. Michael Jordan is another one. Top of the sport. But they were horrible coaches. So, were there some skills you had to fill in to bridge the gap between someone who did these things and someone who’s teaching others to do these things?
BL: Yeah. Sure. It’s a very different headspace. As I’ve gotten more advanced in my own work, of course, it’s made me a better coach. I think compassion is something that I bring to play more in my coaching than in my work. I will be more…as a producer, I’ll just be like, “No.” Somebody puts themselves in front of me and I can easily say yes or no. “No, not for me.” Not, “Yes. Oh, my God. Your work excites me.” As a teacher or coach. I only live in the possibility for you. I see that your work has evolved into a place that I can’t see it there, but you feel it, and I’m going to help you take it there. I also try to help people really find their purpose, what their real purpose is, to set goals that they can reach that have to do with that purpose, to adapt what their plan is having to do with real life, but also to dream big. It’s interesting.
GNN: And you’re still doing this coaching. People can go to your website and get this coaching.
BL: They can. They can go to the website and get this coaching. I don’t have endless availability, but the workshop is available. I do the workshop once a season, once a week, once a season. And those groups are always super interesting. And the coaching…I fit it in when I’m available.
GNN: I found one of your full courses on YouTube…
BL: I put those up on YouTube at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s not a course. It was really meant to be…let me take you back to the beginning of the pandemic. [Laughs] People were so freaked out, and I just wanted to offer something that would really help people. I was really like, “I’m going to reach out and just help. “
I did one called You But Funnier. And then the Eight Habits of Highly Creative People. And those things, I’m happy to give that away because that’s really just me giving you a lot of what I know. But it’s not me looking at your work. It’s not me giving you an assignment. It’s not me taking you in. It’s a great way for me to help people without me spending any more time on it.
BL: My website has all the links. Is it on Google Play? I didn’t know about Google Play.
GNN: Yeah, when I Googled it, it was listed on there.
BL: Oh, wow. That’s because you’re a total geek.
GNN: I am a geek.
BL: It’s everywhere, wherever your audiobooks are.
GNN: You got some heavy hitters that you interview for this book. I was listening to some of the clips from it and I’m definitely going to get it because I want to hear it, and I want my wife to hear it because she’s not a good decision-maker. She always regrets what she didn’t choose. And regret is one of the topics you cover in the audiobook.
BL: Oh, yes.
GNN: Is that something you find common when people can’t make a decision? Regret? How does the book tackle regret?
BL: Well, here’s the thing, there’s a violence that is part of decision-making. The word, “decide.” The -cide part, C-I-D-E, comes from…it’s in words like homicide, suicide, matricide, patricide, all the -cide words. And it is a kind of killing. There is a death to the other options. And we don’t really honor that. We don’t honor how hard decision-making is. We think it should be easy. And we live in a society where thousands and thousands of decisions are required every day, and we have decision exhaustion. So, it becomes harder to make larger decisions because we’ve made a billion little decisions.
Regret is something that is a huge topic we do talk about in the book. I talk about it. People bring it up over and over again because there’s this famous idea that we live life without regrets and try to have no regrets. And you always hear people interviewed like, “Do you have any regrets?” And they’ll say, “No, I have no regrets.” But I think by the time you’re interviewed, you’ve gotten a life that you’re…because people say, “Well, everything that has happened to me got me here. So how can I have regret?” Well, you’re in a great place because you’re in a place where people care. If people care if you have regrets, then you’re in a good enough place that you have no regrets. [Laughs]
God bless Bett Midler. I once heard her interviewed on Late Night. And I think it was Letterman who asked her, “Do you have any regrets?” And she was like, “Yes, I regret everything.” And the whole audience breathed this enormous sigh of relief, like, “At last someone with the truth.” But we live in a culture where also it’s part of the 12-step process is to look at your regrets and not live in the past and make amends for mistakes you’ve made. And I think that it’s a very great light to shine on your life. This idea of living in a way where you have no regrets is a goal. That does not mean you’re not going to make mistakes. You have to get into a place where you understand that just because it’s a mistake does not make it regrettable. The things that are regrettable are hurting people on purpose, not honoring your own spirit. You have to decide for yourself. And these are underlying decisions that then make the rest of your decisions easier. You decide for yourself the way in which you want to live your life. And then the regrets are if you don’t align with that. When something just doesn’t work out as you expected, that is not regrettable. That’s nothing to regret. You can get mad about it. You can figure out what to do better next time. The things to regret are when you strayed from your path.
GNN: Gotcha. Now that makes 100% sense.
BL: People say while they’re listening to the book that they’re thinking about their decisions, who to marry. They’re thinking about how where they want to live. How do I know what job to have, and how do I know what work to do?
I mean, Bob Odenkirk’s story about deciding to leave Saturday Night Live, and what that decision was like. He had no plan B. He was going to move to LA. I mean, he felt he wanted to be a writer and a performer. He knew he wasn’t ready to do it on Saturday Night Live, and he was off like a cat into the unknown. So, part of not regretting things is the courage, you said as you brought up the idea of fear, the idea that decision-making requires courage and not foolhardiness. Americans are not trained in courage, and we live, especially now in a weakened society.
Anyway, the word courage comes from heart, and the French word is coeur. And for me, courageousness, and to take it further, courage and creativity are guiding lights. An example of what the book is about because everyone was so brave in sharing this. I mean, I’ve had so many people tell me what people were so vulnerable in this book. I mean, people shared things that were so vulnerable. I really loved hearing that. And I think it encourages people to hear people that are famous talk about confusion and regret and indecision and mistakes. And how they learn to make mistakes. I think it’s very encouraging because we have an idea of our celebrities and famous people that it kind of all just worked out.
GNN: Yeah, I mean, to hear Bob Odenkirk express doubt of his ability as a performer. I mean, he’s on two of the best shows on television. It’s unreal.
BL: It’s funny because I don’t think it’s actually in the book, but when I was talking to him, I said, “Well, Bob, I mean, your career…” And he was like, “Well, have you looked at my IMDB? Because there’s a lot of stuff on the whole thing that’s not exactly…the absolute best.” [Laughs]
GNN: You’re right.
BL: Our own opinions about our own lives…here’s the thing. This is kind of geeky. This is a nature thing. But when you look at a piece of wood and you see the knot in the wood, that is compelling. Your eye goes to that place. That knot came from an infection. That’s what happens. The tree circles around the infection and protects itself from the infection, and that’s how you get a knot in a piece of wood. Now, in our lives, the problems, the things that went wrong, the disasters, these are the knots of our lives. And this is what we look at from the inside. This is what we’re always seeing because it’s kind of the most interesting. I mean, you think, “Oh, great. I had that great day.” What is there to even remember?
Somebody told me they have a box and every day they just throw in all the good things that happened in the box so that they could open up the box. I actually put a box up there and I haven’t started the habit, but I think it’s a great habit to try to have. That you try to remember.
I’ve also heard parents say that they do a thing with their kids, which is the rose and the thorn of each day. So, you’re looking at the flower and you’re also looking at the difficulty, and you understand that these two things go together. So, from the inside, I think we often see the problems and the knots, and we remember them. Oh my God, every performer can tell you the show that went so awful, and there was no one in the audience, and they were fired from the sitcom. But from the outside, you don’t know any of that. That’s invisible to you. So, in some ways, vulnerability. And what people have shared in this book is the inside story. I mean, the real inside story, not the TMZ inside story, the story of their insides, what it felt like to live this life.
GNN: Without giving too much away, was there anyone who hit you with a particularly emotional story?
BL: Well, obviously, the ones I’ve already talked about. God, there are so many. Isaac Mizrahi talked about difficulty with his dad as a young gay boy, and his dad took him to buy his first sewing machine and that’s really a beautiful story. And Dave Holmes has an amazing story about coming out that involves the Indigo Girls. Dana Gould, he’s a fellow geek, has a great story about love that when he told it to his therapist, his therapist just stopped and said, “Well, that’s a great story.” Byron Bowers has a great story about when he realized, in the Dead Sea, that he was going to have children, then he made the decision to change his life in the Dead Sea. Judy Gold…she’s so funny and she has a really great story about deciding to have children and what that was like. Meryl Marco talks about deciding to move to Los Angeles from San Francisco. She was an artist and how it unfolded after she made that decision. I was very moved by so many of the conversations.
GNN: So, is it just the stories, or is there an underlying narrative?
BL: Well, it’s my narrative. And then my narrative leads into a story and then I quilt through, so it’s chapters. So, there’s work, love, family, spirituality, and moving, and there’s an intro to the whole book, then an intro to each chapter, and then I weave through the chapters with commentary.
GNN: Oh, that’s good.
BL: Then I close up the chapter and start the next chapter, and there’s a conclusion to the book. So, I really host and narrate the way through. And a lot of it is my decisions around UnCabaret and I do a very deep dive. I had more, anyway. So, it ended up being that.
GNN: I love that format. I design training and this seems like a very engaging format versus just like a bulleted list of tips or something like that.
BL: People are saying it’s very compelling and hard to turn off, so that’s nice.
GNN: Good. I’m definitely going to check it out!
BL: Helpful, funny, and compelling. Those are my favorite compliments.
GNN: This seems like something my wife and I can listen to together.
BL: Oh, definitely.
GNN: So, to wrap things up, I have one question I ask everyone I talk to. This is Geek News Network. What are you geeking out on right now? Television, books, music, movies. What are you geeking out on right now?
BL: Gosh. What’s a good answer to that? White fingernails? No. What am I geeking out on? Gosh. Besides the last seven episodes still to come of Ozark?
GNN: See? There you go. Bingo. Ozark. You like Ozark?
BL: Yeah. Love Ozark. Obsessed. Yeah. Ruth in particular. My God, that character. I can’t stop thinking about her.
GNN: We might have to give that a second shot. My wife and I watched the first episode and didn’t love it.
BL: Oh, no, you can’t go by the first episode. I watched the first episode. I watched the first 20 minutes of the first episode three times. And I was just like, “No.” I mean, I’m not in for this kind of ride. It’s violent. I don’t get it. And then I heard so many good things about it, but then I watched it with my boyfriend, and I think because we were watching it together, we decided to give it a little more time. Sometimes you have more patience when you’re watching with someone else.
BL: You have to kind of get into, like, the third episode. You have to give it a couple of episodes. I mean, the performances. It’s also very beautiful. I mean, I definitely tend to want to watch things now with some beauty in them.
GNN: Right. That makes sense. I feel like such a hypocrite because I only gave it one episode, and then when people tell me they didn’t like Breaking Bad, I’m like, “You got to give it three or four episodes.” Because if you think about it, I’m like, from a logical perspective, the first episode is, he’s a science teacher with cancer in the first episode? That is a horrible plot for a television show. But by the third and fourth episode, now he’s a doesn’t give two Fs science teacher who’s becoming a drug kingpin. A little more interesting.
BL: A little different. A little different. It’s like you have to be willing to give certain things time and TV series that at least have a few seasons. It’s like you’re not going to invest in something that doesn’t have a few seasons.
GNN: Well, that about wraps it up. So, again, folks can go to bethlapides.com, they can find your blog and where you’re appearing and links to those. They can also go to UnCabaret.com, and get tickets to upcoming shows. And if they want, Amazon Prime, again, four episodes of UnCabaret on Amazon Prime.
BL: It’s right there. They could check it out there. Yeah. And the book, obviously, in all the places.
GNN: Well, I appreciate the time, and thank you very much.
BL: Thank you. Thank you for your interest, Scott. And I hope you enjoy the book, and I hope it helps you.
GNN: Again, thank you very much. Have a great weekend and I appreciate you taking the time!
BL: You too, Scott. See you down the road.