People always told Bitsy Biron that she should do comedy, but it wasn’t until she turned 50—and found herself in a bad way—that she decided to give it a shot. Now she hits the mic four nights a week at clubs throughout Northern New England. We caught up with Bitsy before an open mic at Salt Hill Pub in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to talk about her path to becoming a stand-up, her thoughts on the local comedy scene and, of course, Bernie Sanders’ baby.
How did you get started in comedy?
A few years ago, my marriage was falling apart. I was depressed. I was an alcoholic. I was entering menopause. And I had been fired from four jobs for being inappropriate—I have a little bit of an anger problem.
I started having fantasies of disappearing, because my daughter was turning 13 and she started to not need me. I was also not a good partner. I was passing out every night, fully-clothed, with my jacket and boots on. And I was in therapy. My therapist asked me, “What’s the one thing that people have always said you’d be good at?” I was, like, “You know how people always say you should be a comedian?” And she said, “No, I don’t know how that is. Why don’t you just take a comedy class?” So I took a class in Burlington with Josie Leavitt. There were only two of us that were funny, and the rest of the class was not funny at all.
“I didn’t know that I had to cater to a college crowd, so I was just writing jokes about being a 50-year-old woman. I bombed so hard.”
And you stuck with it?
It was pretty easy, and people were laughing, so I took another class, and then another. I went out to clubs to watch comics for about a year. It was mostly young men on stage, telling jokes about video games and porn. At the time I was 51, maybe 52, and I didn’t understand what they were talking about. But I stuck with it, kept observing, kept writing, and then I took a class from Nathan Hartswick, who owns Vermont Comedy Club with his wife, Natalie. He was instrumental in helping me to channel my comedy voice. He believed in me in a way that nobody else did.
Were you performing live in the clubs at that point?
I was way too scared. I had to perform after every class, so I’d do that one performance, but it was mortifying. It felt like coming out of your body, and you can hear your voice from a million miles away, and then you’re stumbling. I couldn’t eat all day. But then these guys just got me up on stage and I started doing it.
How were your first few shows?
I remember performing at Half Lounge—it’s the scariest room in Burlington. I got up and was, like, “So, how many of you guys take fish oil?” It was all these 20-year-old kids, and none of them raised their hand. Oops. I didn’t know that I had to cater to a college crowd, so I was just writing jokes about being a 50-year-old woman. I bombed so hard. I had a lot of hard knocks that way.
Had you ever done any theater or improv before taking those comedy classes?
I studied performance art for a year in college. I actually won two grants and got to work with Linda Montano and Vito Acconci, famous performance artists from the 1970s. I did this shadow piece where I stayed with a stranger for 24 hours. I didn’t speak or eat or drink anything, and I even had to sleep on the floor by his bed. The guy I studied with was famous for biting himself all over his body. He was also buried beneath a gallery floor and lived there for five days, doing nothing but jerking off—that was conceptual art in the Seventies. So it is similar to comedy, isn’t it?
What did you do after art school?
I got into film and video, and I moved out to Hollywood to try to get into the movie business. I worked as a production assistant on pornos and really bad B-movies, making $30 dollars a week. It was awful, but some of my friends from the Art Institute of Chicago gave me a big break as an assistant to a music video producer. We ended up producing 85 videos together. I started my own production company in 1992 called Black Ball Films.
What were some of your better music videos?
I’m really, really proud of a 10-camera live shoot I did with Pantera for the song “Walk.” I also did videos with R. Kelly, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Ozzy Osbourne with Infectious Grooves. Ozzy broke his ankle when he was with us. It was a nightmare: “I’m not going on stage until I get my bloody baked potato!” He was on a diet where he could only have baked potatoes.
How did you end up in the tiny village of East Orange?
I met my partner, Patrick, in Los Angeles. We were both waiting tables at a diner called Millie’s, where you’re encouraged to be rude to the customers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Laura Dern were regulars. The lead singer from Tool was there every day—all these weird Hollywood types. We had a “problem customer” horn. It was really long, like a vuvuzela, and if someone asked for something like a side of sour cream, we’d just come out and, “HOOOONNNKKK! PROBLEM CUSTOMER!” Patrick and I fell in love there and decided to quit the rat race. We went to Alaska for four months, saved some money, moved to Portland, Oregon, and had a baby. After having a baby, I wanted to be with my family, so we moved to New England in 2005.
Were you a big comedy fan when you started performing here in Vermont?
No, I didn’t know anything. I loved Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, but I didn’t even know who Moms Mabley was. I had to be educated real fast. These kids in Burlington took me under their wing and told me to listen to Rory Scovel, Natasha Leggero, Amy Schumer—they really taught me what I should do.
“I shock and horrify people constantly. I wish I didn’t.”
You were named one of Vermont’s top five comics in 2014. What did it feel like to be recognized so soon after starting stand-up?
I was very surprised. I didn’t even want to enter the contest because I was so scared. To have that recognition so early on, and now, when I didn’t even make the semi-finals this year, it’s really humbling. At first I thought it was so easy. Then I started traveling with my friend Kendall Farrell, who won Vermont’s funniest comedian this year. We performed outside our little politically correct, supportive-of-women comedy scene, and it was very rough out there.
Where did you go?
We went to Maine, New Hampshire, and Boston several times.
How do the Boston and Manchester comedy scenes compare to Vermont?
They’re very male-driven, with much more testosterone-fueled comedy. There are still comics making fun of gay people and women, which is just not allowed in Burlington. Even Rutland has its own kind of hard-hitting scene, more tattoos and gauges, more graphic jokes. It’s got a heavy metal feel down there. Boston also had this weird competitive feeling. People got up on the stage and then they left. They didn’t sit around to watch anybody else. In Vermont, we sit and support each other’s sets.
Many of your jokes are ribald and racy—do you ever get flack from audience members who take offense at your material?
Yeah, I shock and horrify people constantly. I wish I didn’t. I’m trying to write clean material and it’s terrible. I’m playing this Thursday for sex offenders at the prison in St. Albans, and I cannot do anything that is sex-related. I’ve been scouring through every joke I’ve ever written and have the worst five percent of my material to work with.
Outside of the prison performances, are there any topics that you just won’t touch on stage?
I’ve made some huge mistakes about race. I was in a violent domestic relationship with an African-American man and I was also in a band with five black girls for years, so I’ve had experiences with black culture. There are a lot of myths and stereotypes there that I’d love to play around with, but it could be misconstrued as racist in Burlington. I’ve also pulled back on objectifying men—I want to stop doing that. I have a lot of man-hating jokes, and it’s really terrible, because most of my friends in the comic community are sensitive, intellectual, feminist men. They tell me I’m preaching to the choir.
After performing so often for a certain type of audience in Vermont, do you find it challenging to perform at other venues outside the state?
Oh, yes. I’ve bombed hard, like when I ran out of a club and went crying into the alley. I went to two places in Maine, and the first was in a really shitty part of town. I did great, the best show I’ve ever had, in front of people that were completely obliterated. They loved me. The next night we were in downtown Portland at this fancy place called Lincolns. I hit the stage, opened my mouth, and just bombed. It was awful.
“One day it just dawned on me: I was a drummer for 30 years, I love rhythm and syncopation, and so I decided to combine drumming with comedy.”
How do you handle bombing?
I beat myself up. It stays with you—I’ll wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, remembering a bad joke delivery and someone in the audience groaning.
What keeps you going back out on stage after an experience like that?
The first couple times I had really hard bombs I wrote to Nathan to ask for feedback. He told me that the audience isn’t always going to love me and that it’s important to not blame them or blame myself. It’s a learning experience. Hillary Boone encouraged me to listen to my audio recordings, even though it’s hard, and to focus on delivery. Sometimes an inflection of the voice, a single word, or the way you phrase something can make a joke very funny or not funny at all. Sometimes it’s about saying goodbye to material that’s not consistent. It’s usually about fifteen percent of everything you’re writing that you’re able to hold onto. And sometimes you just get tired, like with the Bernie rap.
How did that Bernie Sanders rap come about?
I was working at Northern State Correctional Facility and had the most oppressive boss, but I didn’t want to leave, because there was so much good material there. I also had this hour-and-forty-minute commute and was listening to a lot of Childish Gambino and The Internet. And Bernie was so inspirational at that time. So, the girls in my band used to have this expression, “He’s so crazy, I wanna have his baby!” One day it just dawned on me: I was a drummer for 30 years, I love rhythm and syncopation, and so I decided to combine drumming with comedy. So then I wrote the rap and I would just practice, “Hyper diaper, pied piper, hyper diaper, pied piper,” over and over while driving to Newport and back every day.
Did the lyrics come to you while you were driving?
It took me six weeks to write and complete it. I started practicing while driving my daughter and her friends to middle school. They’d be, like, “You suck. You’re terrible!” Then I started trying to do it in the jail, where there were real rappers. They were just, like, “Do not do that in front of anyone ever. Go home, listen to Lauryn Hill and practice. Use your body. You’re not expressing yourself. You sound like some stupid white person.”
Besides that fish oil joke, what’s the worst joke you’ve ever told?
Well, I was going to do my Leonardo DiCaprio impression tonight. He used to come into Millie’s all the time and make out with his fashion model girlfriend, and then he would want more lemonade. Most of my jokes are horrible. I try to forget all the terrible ones. What you see on stage is three years of the hardest work—the best of the best.
Do you record every single one of your performances?
I try to. If it’s just a regular show and I did pretty well, I’ll listen in the car on the way home. When I bomb, I have to really feel on top of the world to listen to that recording. When I’m depressed and want to quit comedy, because I’ve had so many bad nights when my jokes weren’t working, then I will sit and listen to the best shows. That’s what lifts me up and keeps me going.
Tell me about Femcom.
It’s a show we put on the first Saturday of every month at Espresso Bueno in Barre, and it features female comedians. It was inspired by an experience I had at a comedy club in New Hampshire. I had to sit through three hours of this dude who just came on to the chicks in the audience. I remember leaving and thinking it wasn’t fair. This is what everybody used to think comedy was in the Eighties and why I never liked comedy back then. The owners of the club dismissed me and I just felt treated poorly. So I came back and thought, you know we need to have something like Femcom. It’s funny because now it’s almost half women at all the shows in Burlington. There are probably 30 women comedians I know who are working all the time and it’s great. All the women get together for these big brunches at the comedy club.
And you’re working on a new podcast?
We recorded our first live podcast at Femcom. Panties in a Wadcast is going to be about women and comedy. Maggie Lenz, my partner in crime, and I will be putting together the first episode soon.
Where would you like to see your comedy career go?
I’m 55-fucking-years-old. I’m psyched to just be getting shows. Half the fun is that these young people are letting me hang out with them. I’ll always be a regional comic, and that’s great. I love Vermont and spending time with my partner, so why would I want to go out of town?
Find Bitsy Biron on Twitter and Instagram, and catch her performing live with Dan Gilbert and Kendall Farrell at Sy’s Fund Comedy Show on Friday, June 17 at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction.