As she calls me to start our interview, I can’t help but recognize the area code. And it’s not because I have gone to the trouble of recognizing every single area code in the country (I probably can only name a handful off the top of my head), but rather that this was the same one I grew up with in the middle of suburban Illinois.
“I can’t look over the past so I just refuse to change my area code or my drivers license,” she tells me when I bring this up just as we start our talk. “11 years later. I’m so bad. I refuse. I have to feel like I’m an Illinois resident. I can’t let go of that. I will fly to Illinois to renew my license before I become a California resident.”
It’s at this moment that everything clicks in. Her first stand-up special, Esther Povitsky: Hot For My Name, has a lot going on in it. Yes, there is the obvious stand-up portion that makes up a great deal of it. There’s even a music video tied into it that is a lot of fun. But it’s her dynamic when she goes home that you really get to learn about who Esther Povitsky is and what she’s all about. It’s through seeing her with her parents and what that relationship is like that you can appreciate her as a comedian even more. Once you know the context, and know what her dad actually looks like, her joke about how she looks like her dad is even funnier.
We recently spoke with Esther about her new special, how she filmed it to get her parents to relax, changing outfits in the special, what she’s been up to in the pandemic, and why she doesn’t feel too much of a rush about going back onstage anytime soon.
So tell me about how this idea came together.
My friend Nick and I, who directed it, we had this idea. We’ve been talking about this idea for a couple years now. One day I’ll do a special and it will have other elements to it. It will have my family be in it and you know there are always different versions. One’s a version where they use sketches or all these different things.
Honestly, the reason it happened when it happened was just because my friend Nick was working with Adam Sandler and he showed Adam my stand up and Adam just goes, “I wanna produce her special.” And then Nick called me and was like “You’re doing a special now”. And I was like, “What? I’m not ready.” And he said, “If Adam Sandler says you’re ready, then you’re ready. So yes you are.” And I said, “Okay fine.” I realized at that moment that I was never going to think I was ready to do a special and like it wasn’t gonna happen, so I needed to be forced a little bit. Then we talked to Comedy Central and right away they wanted to do it. And we were like, “Sweet, let’s do it.” They told me about their vision and they could tell we had this shared idea and they were supportive of it, and they trusted us. Then we got to make it!
That’s so cool how that vision came together. I’m sure it was surreal as well when you hear that Adam Sandler wants to produce your first stand up special. Like, that doesn’t happen very often!
Yeah! It’s the first stand up special that Happy Madison has ever produced and I hope it’s the first of many and I hope they do more. And I was watching him on Saturday Night Live when I was little, and he was so funny. He was so funny. And he is such a kind person and really supportive and generous. I’m grateful, for sure.
So you knew right from the start that you wanted to incorporate your family into it. Like, that was always the idea.
Yeah, it was.
What made you want to go with that idea? I like that idea because I feel like when you watch it as an audience member, it enhances the jokes so much more to be able to see what you talk about and then segway into actually seeing it. Like go from you on the stage to seeing it.
Yeah, it really does! And what’s funny is I’m so not that thoughtful that I would think about that part of it which everyone’s like, “That’s the thing right? You do the joke and then we see something about the joke?” And I was like, “Oh I guess. I don’t know.” I never know what I’m doing, it’s just like accidentally.
I used to do these livestreams like years ago before I finally got acting jobs. I would live stream like everything I did. I would go home with my parents and I would film then and it really was funny. People loved it and people wanted more and then I went on Late Night w/Seth Myers. I actually had a security camera installed in my brother and sisters rooms so that I could spy on their dogs, and then I would catch our parents doing weird things. We talked about it on Seth Myers and people went crazy and the audience loved it so much.
Then it sort of all was like “Well I think that to get to know me as a comedian, it would be still enhanced if people could also see the other ways in which I’m funny, which is when I’m at home with my family.” Like I said at one point maybe we’d have sketches, but I just felt like it would be such a more well rounded way to get to know who I am as a person and as a performer and as a comedian if I showed more elements than just a stand up.
And how were they, when you told them, “Hey I want to do this thing and have you guys involved in it.” Were they on board right away?
Not really. They were like,“We don’t think so. It’s not really what we do.” And I was like “Okay well I already sold it to Comedy Central (Laughs). You either want me to have a stand up special or you don’t.” I kind of knew they were going to be resistant but I also feel like that’s just the kind of relationship that I have in my family. It’s like “Yeah I know you don’t want to do this, but you’re gonna do it.” I gave them money. I had to bribe them and bought them meals, so they did it.
And the dynamic is so interesting in as much as it seems completely authentic. Like they don’t care that cameras are on them, they’re gonna say what they normally say. Would you say that’s true to how it actually goes when you go home to see your family?
Actually, I would say that we were able to capture that, but the way we shot it was very intentional. We did not use a crew. It’s funny. When we were going over our budget at first, Comedy Central had budgeted for a full crew and sound guys and all these things and multiple cameras. Me and my producing partner Nick were like “We don’t need any of that, we’re good.” And they were like, “What?” and we were like “We’re good!”
My friend Nick who directed it and produced it with me was like, “How are we going to get your parents to just forget we’re filming them?” Nick just got this really awesome camera- I think it’s called the Black Magic camera- it worked really well and was small. And we filmed it with this little camera. Just one camera. And I think that at first it was like, “Okay, he’s filming us.” When it’s just one person, though, you just forget that they’re there. It’s this one guy in a button down shirt and cargo shorts, so you kind of do and say whatever because you don’t really feel like you’re on the spot. And that’s why we’re able to get what we got. I don’t think we would have been able to do that without that. It’s a tricky, sneaky technique!
Right, and it would have felt staged if there was a whole crew there. Like it all would have felt so fake, I feel like.
And I’m so frickin sensitive of that because my favorite show on MTV was [like that]. And that show I feel like was really fly on the wall and there was no setup. That show was kind of like the goalpost for me of how I want this to feel. 10 years ago I had a pilot on TV and it was supposed to be a reality show. It was so overproduced like the scenes, the story line. I’m like, “This isn’t funny.” I get that they have to do this, but it just didn’t work. For this I just didn’t want that. In fact, as a backup to make people feel secure we did one set up scene. You saw the special, you know it’s the one in the conference room.
Right, yeah. I could tell that was set up.
Yeah. We set that up, we put up a little bit. But then what my parents did in reaction, they were being so much funnier than the actual bit itself, because you see their response. They’re like, “That’s not set up.” Their response is the funniest part of the bit. Here I am, I wrote this funny bit and it’s not even what’s funny about the bit. It just kind of ran away from me and I lost control and I guess that’s what made it funny and that’s why we ended up keeping it. But when we originally shot it we were like, “I don’t know, this setup is kind of just silly.” But thankfully it ended up being really fun.
At one point, we see your parents go to one of your stand-up shows. How do they react to your stand-up? Do they come to shows when you’re in the area?
Well, I don’t like letting them come to my shows. I don’t like family members or friends there. It gets me in my head. I like to just perform for a crowd. I don’t want to think about who I knew out there. When they flew to New York to film with us, I cut them a deal. I said, “If you come to New York, I will let you guys come to my show.”
They were really excited and they loved it, they had fun. You know, when I first started doing stand-up, my dad was like “I don’t really think you’re a comedian. I think you’re just a person who wants to know comedians.” And I was like, “Okay.” But as the years go by, I’m like “Maybe he was right.” All in this pandemic I do is Facetime my friends and then I’ll just expect them to entertain me. My friend was like, “Esther you’re a comedy fan. You’re not a comedian. You just want to entertain. You’re a fan.” I think they like my stand-up. They’ve seen my shows just because they’re fun. I guess I didn’t grow with friends who think I’m funny, but I feel like now they’re into it.
And one other thing about your special is it seems like you change outfits quite frequently. How many different tapings were there?
This is another part of the vision that we had from the start which was honestly of course from an insecure place of not being able to choose an outfit. I really wanted to film my special over two nights. I really didn’t like the idea of leaving it up to one night. I’m like, “What if I get my period or what if…” I don’t know. There was just something about the pressure of one night that I felt really nervous about. We were able to film in a really small, cool theatre in an affordable way that we were able to do it over two nights. I just decided that I like the idea, personally inspired by the Adam Sandler special, how you cut them to get that look. I just loved that it felt like I was a part of a chore and so I wanted to incorporate that element of it feeling a little more exciting. We’re used to swiping and tapping and I didn’t want people to just stare at me in the same outfit for an hour. I felt like it would be fun to add a fashion element to it and get to use cool outfits.
And what’s interesting as well as, combined with the footage of you with your family and the music video, there’s about 30-40 minutes of stand-up. Was there a lot of stuff that were cut out that you wish had made it in?
Yeah, I mean that was our plan with this. We were like, “We’re going to overshoot the standup. We’re gonna overshoot the documentary.” Our goal was to be in that position where we had to get rid of stuff we loved because there was too much. I wanted to be in that position so yes, there were definitely bits and jokes and scenes that didn’t make it in. Definitely. From an editing perspective though, you would want to kill things you love then not squeezing in things you don’t love. I think that was also part of why we did it the way we did it, which is we knew we could get a ton of stuff, so we did that.
And the last thing I want to ask about the special is how the music video came together?
That again was when we pitched it. We first mentioned we want to do a song. I had that idea for a song about looking like my dad and then I met up with Dan Bulla, who’s a really brilliant, funny song writer and comedy writer.
He did the Sandler special! Yes he toured with Gimlet, did that with Sandler and he’s working at SNL now. He’s also from Chicago. But I think we wrote it online because he had already moved [to New York]. He came up with that music and he did such a great job. I’m like a little wanna be pop star and a wanna be theatre performer so if I can speak the song and dance to something, I’m always for it.
I love how much you’re not expecting to see a music video, but it still works.
I know, it’s really weird. It does not fit in.
Tell me about how acting came about for you. Was transitioning to acting something you always envisioned? Or did it just happen organically?
I just wanted to work in comedy. I just wanted to do things that were funny. I wanted to make people laugh. That was really kind of the guideline for me. I just wanted to make things that are funny, that I feel like I’m being funnier and things that make me laugh. It was really just about working in comedy and that could have been sketches, that could have been improv, funny videos, podcasts, stand up, acting. It was kind of all of it as long I made funny things.
That being said, it is a global pandemic and I do find myself transitioning into becoming a professional tie dyer, and tie die is not funny so I have changed a little bit. That’s allowed for right now. I think by maybe 2021 I’ll go back to comedy.
So once everything opens up is it gonna be awhile you think before you go back to stand up?
I don’t think I’ll be in the first wave of comedians to go back. I don’t know when it’s gonna come back or what capacity, but I will not be in a rush I don’t think. I live with my fiancé and my parents are senior citizens. It’s more important to me that I feel safe being around those people then rushing into performing and that’s why I’m more focusing on how to do things from home like livestream and podcasts. If that’s how I spend the next 5 years, then I’ll be okay.
But even if you’re not consciously preparing to go back anytime soon, do you still find yourself writing jokes? Is this a time where you can be creative joke wise?
It’s hard for me to write a joke or work on a bit right now because I don’t know when I’m gonna go on stage and tell a joke or a story or a bit. So I truthfully don’t have motivation for that right now. I just don’t, and I’m kind of just not gonna force it. I’m really trying to figure out, “ Okay well, in a livestream everyday, am I gonna go on Instagram live with my friends? What kind of at home formats can I do that make more sense? Maybe storytelling, that’s something you can do. Podcasting and live streaming.” But performing an actual act, there’s no motivation there for me because I’ve just been like, “ I don’t know.”
I had started working on my new act after Nick and I did the special. The day after I filmed the special I went up and had like 5 new minutes that were bursting out of me because I had been doing the same f*cking jokes for so long practicing for the special. I was really excited to start doing and crafting a new hour. But I kind of put that notebook on a shelf for the time being because I don’t know what I’m gonna wanna talk about when stand up comes back and how this is going to change me forever and change my point of view on life. It’s kind of on hold for me. I’m not like most comedians, I’m not like most girls. It really took me the full 10 years to write my first hour standup, so I move really at my own pace and I’m kind of okay taking time with it. I’m never going to be the person that has a new special every year anyway. So I’m okay with this little break.
So with everything going the way it is, and you not being sure of when you want to get back onstage, what would you say is next as far as a career goal?
You know I wrote a movie and I would really love to find a way to get that movie made and I’m developing an animating idea and I would love to sell that or get that made. I think the thing that was most fulfilling to me has been writing and performing. In Alone Together, I co-created that show and starred in it, and I would like to do something like that again one day. That’s really hard to do so I don’t know if I’ll get to, but I hope to. And I love the show Doll Face I work on, so more of that. More of the same, pretty much.
And I genuinely want to start a tie dye company, but that’s more of a hobby challenge. I’m literally like, “Can I manufacture tye dye products and sell them and ship them out? How long will I do that before I’m like, I’m not doing this, this is crazy?“
Esther Povitsky: Hot For My Name is on Comedy Central on demand now.