EDGE Rewind: When Jennifer Coolidge Talked Doing Stand-up

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Saturday February 4, 2023
Originally published on February 9, 2011

Jennifer Coolidge
Jennifer Coolidge  

Jennifer Coolidge endeared herself to a generation of college-aged hetero boys when she played Stifler's Mom, the famous MILF in American Pie. She did the same with gay men when a few years later she took the role of Paulette, the put-upon beautician whose empowered by Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She showed further range as a character actress in the popular mockumentaries by Christopher Guest, most notably as the wife to an ancient billionaire in Best In Show having an affair with pre-Glee Jane Lynch.

What makes Coolidge such a unique character actress is her ability to never slip into caricature - she plays types, but she puts her deft touch to each of them. Her dumb blonde from Best In Show may have been loosely modeled on the late Anna Nicole Smith, but she gives it such a fresh, wacky spin that she makes the character her own crazy, sweet creation.

Her career has taken her from the movies (including a hilarious parody of Barbra Streisand in 2006 Date Movie) to television (guest appearances on Seinfeld and Sex in the City, a regular role on Joey) and Broadway (The Women and, most recently, Elling). But two years ago Coolidge - who had her comedy roots with the New York version of the improv group The Groundlings - decided to do stand-up. She toured the country last year (visiting Boston about a year ago), took her act to the famous Edinburgh Festival in Scotland last summer and is now back at the Wilbur where she'll do her act with fresh material to a home town audience this Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 7pm as part of her latest tour.

Describing herself as Chelsea Handler, only more depressing, expect Coolidge to mention Valentine's Day and dating.The Hallmark holiday was a topic she hit upon at the onset of a recent conversation.

Jennifer Coolidge in a guest appearance on The Closer
Jennifer Coolidge in a guest appearance on The Closer  

About Valentine's Day

EDGE: You're here on February 12 - just in time for Valentine's Day...

Jennifer Coolidge When is that? The 14th? I guess I'll have to talk about Valentine's Day then. You know I have so many people wanting to out with me that night. I talk about that in the show. Romance.

EDGE: Are you old-fashioned when it comes to romance?

Jennifer Coolidge Oh, yeah. I'm a sucker for it. It's so corny when some guy brings you chocolates, but I love it. It is so nice to see when some guy falls for that crap. I know that's so old, and that's my problem. I need to get with it. I have to get modern. I have to get into this century.

EDGE: What do you mean - you don't use a computer?

Jennifer Coolidge: No. I think I'm a woman living in another time. I am not computer savvy or technical. You don't know how many times I have to call up a neighbor when my TV won't go on.

But a lot of my gay friends have had great luck meeting guys on Grindr. What is it about that? Maybe I should talk about someone making a Grindr for women. But it's different. Women are far more vulnerable to meet like that. Or through some hook-up site. I couldn't just go hook up with someone at their apartment. It has the potential to be so humiliating. That's why I'm not going to the Match.com thing. It's like I have friends who say, like it took 50 dates before I met David. And I'd say, what did you do before that? And they say they'd go on the date and tell the guy they just weren't attracted to them over coffee or sushi. And I'd say, you've got to be kidding me? You'd tell them that? The truth is too harsh, sometimes. I haven't joined that dating world. But never say never... I'm open to new things.

Jennifer Coolidge (upper) in Best in Show (with Jane Lynch); (lower) in A Cinderella Story
Jennifer Coolidge (upper) in Best in Show (with Jane Lynch); (lower) in A Cinderella Story  

Humiliation = funny

EDGE: You've been in LA a long time. What do you like about living there?

Jennifer Coolidge: The weather. It's better than anyplace else. Incredible. But LA is getting bad. In my stand-up I talk about the depressing side of LA.

EDGE: What is it, the people, the driving?

Jennifer Coolidge: No, not so much that. LA is going through this weird time. It's this reality show weird time right now. When I ride down the street there are 100 reality shows being taped. At every other house there some strange show with some really strange content being filmed. When I got to LA this town was like just movies and television shows, like Seinfeld.

EDGE: Why do you think they're so popular. Is it because they're so cheap to make?

Jennifer Coolidge: That's exactly what it is. They're so incredibly cheap to make. I have a house in New Orleans and I try to make it down there as much as I can and someone called me the other day to see if they could rent my house for a reality show. They're making tons of reality shows down there too, I guess.

EDGE: Do you think Christopher Guest is at all responsible for reality TV? I mean his movies are prototypes for the genre.

Jennifer Coolidge: I would hate to blame him for this. No, I blame it on the average person's short attention span. They don't have time to watch a story develop. And if you watch these reality shows, a lot of the time nothing is really happening. It's not like there are great stories going on there. I've heard a lot of different theories about why they are so popular. I've heard that people want to feel superior to the people on TV and if they watch these silly people on these shows, they feel better about themselves.

EDGE: You mentioned having a house in New Orleans. How often do you get down there???

Jennifer Coolidge: I try to get down there about every six weeks. I just love it there. I can't get enough of that town. I'm queen of Orpheus there this year. The reason I bought the house there is to retire there sometime. I have a big house from 1855 that is really romantic. Every year all my friends fly in for my birthday and we have a big party.

It is a town that doesn't resemble any other town in the United States - it so unique. All my friends who fly in can't believe New Orleans is such a cool place. That's another place that is under hyped. I still don't think enough people know how amazing it is. I think it is making an incredible comeback. It's strange - of all the places I've been, it is the part of the country where I see the economy swing the least. I think it is doing better than other cities. I feel New Orleans is surviving the recession better than other cities. When I go down there I go past these restaurants filled with people and you can't get a reservation. It's really happening.

Jennifer Coolidge (upper) in Legally Blonde; (lower) in American Pie 2
Jennifer Coolidge (upper) in Legally Blonde; (lower) in American Pie 2  

Her classy Broadway thing

EDGE: Where do you come up with ideas for you material??

Jennifer Coolidge: The best material I ever had in my life was when I had these humiliating jobs. I baby-sat for this really wealthy woman in Beverly Hills and you wouldn't believe all the humiliating things she had me do. And I got some of my best comedy from that. That was 20 years ago. It's hard when you're an actor to get good material. There are plenty of humiliating things that can happen to you as an actor, but people are a little more careful about what they say to you. You need to catch people with their guard down. Some of the best lines I ever had were what people said to me and I just wrote them down. So it's a retelling of these experiences.

But it's harder for me now. I don't put myself in those kind of humiliating experiences. But I almost wish I was back in that world again, when I was a waitress or baby-sitting. Everyday I would have four or five pages of material, like weird things my boss would ask me to do. Like I would tell my friends what she would ask me to do and they would be howling. I'm sad that woman is not in my life anymore. Today I get ideas from weird interviews I hear on television and the radio - the ridiculous things people say.

EDGE: You were on the road quite a bit last year - was that a source for material???

Jennifer Coolidge It is. When you live in LA you have a limited perspective on the world. When traveling you meet all kinds of people on the plane and all these different kinds of people in these towns I went through. Like in August I went to Scotland for the first time and there were so many great stories from that.

EDGE: You did the Edinburgh Festival?

Jennifer Coolidge: I did 28 shows there. I had no idea Scotland would be so great. Even though my brother married a Scottish woman and I can't understand a single thing she says because of her strong brogue. That festival is one of the coolest thing I have ever done. Even if I wasn't performing and had just gone to the shows, it would have been great. People had to earn their space there. I thought my stand-up was a joke compared to some of these brilliant European stand-ups.

EDGE: Did you have to re-fashion your material for the Scottish audiences?

Jennifer Coolidge: I had to change it a little bit because there were things I thought the Scottish would find funny, but they didn't. But I had a week to work out my material and actually added stories about experiences I had in Scotland, which they love because people love to hear stories about travelers' experiences in their country.

EDGE: Are there some subjects that are universal?

Jennifer Coolidge: Oh, yes. People like to hear about sex, and about bad dates. But, for instance, wanting to get out of LA, I'd leave that out my LA gig. If I have a good story about my neighbor who is in the audience I wouldn't tell it, unless they went to the bathroom or something. In the first 10 or 15 minutes you can get a feel for what the audience is and it's like going through a minefield, but you instinctively add things or leave things out. I can't really explain how I know, I just feel it.

Jennifer Coolidge
Jennifer Coolidge  

The classy Broadway thing

EDGE: When we spoke to you a year ago before your first date at the Wilbur, you weren't sure what you were going to do and were a bit apprehensive... but it flowed really well. If you were nervous, it didn't show.

Jennifer Coolidge: Oh, thanks. That was a show that was really hard for me because my 90-year old father wanted to go to the show and I couldn't really discourage him, and he wanted to bring his 89-year old friends. And there was nothing I could do about it - they all showed up. And I was like, God, how was I going to leave out all the dirty stuff - that is most of the show, so they all had to hear it. But I have to say my father left quickly after the show and didn't stay for the after party so I think it was a bit overwhelming. He said something like, 'Jenny, you're off to a good start, but I think you should aim for something more high quality somewhere down the line.' I don't think he wants to hear his daughter talk like that, I'm sure. But he rallied all his friends - he was very cute about it. And 90-is up there.

I felt so bad. You know I was in a Broadway show this fall - Elling with Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser - but it closed before my dad got a chance to see it. And it was this incredibly beautiful, well-written, classy play. Of course he doesn't see me do my classy Broadway thing, but sees my crass show. It's too bad we couldn't have switched those, but that's how it goes.

EDGE: Elling was a hit in London, but folded so quickly here. Why do you think that happened?

Jennifer Coolidge: I thought it was promoted too late in the game. Everyone I knew how lived in NYC didn't know about the show. And that was too bad because it was this brilliant play about these two guys in an insane asylum who are very different - one is very eccentric and sophisticated, and the other is this very sexual, horny guy obsessed with women - and their friendship that developed. It had done really well in London and a big success in Australia and I was bummed it didn't catch on, but people were going to Spiderman or the Rockettes. But, like I said before, I don't people have the attention span to sit through a play anymore. But I thought the play was incredibly moving. And look I went to the Rockettes this year, and it was great, but if I had to choose. It seems audiences just aren't tuned into straight plays. But then I saw Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice and it was an unbelievable production that was sold out. So maybe there is an audience...

EDGE: But that came to Broadway after being a hit last summer in Central Park. It already had a buzz.

Jennifer Coolidge: Oh, I didn't know that. And it was a smaller theater. We were in a bigger house - the Barrymore has 1076 seats and that's a lot of seats to sell at Christmastime for a serious play. But I hope Elling goes on and gets done someplace else. It's great. I'd be backstage and get teary-eyed every night. The combination of those actors was just fantastic and I was surprised that it didn't catch on. But that was that.

EDGE: Have you ever thought of writing a book???

Jennifer Coolidge: I have, it's funny you should say that. A couple of weeks ago someone called me up and suggested I write a book - someone I know in the business. I love Chelsea Hander's book and I was in the Groundlings with Kathy Griffin and I love her book. But my book would be much more depressing. (laughs) It would be darker. The one thing when you're doing stand-up is that you are not allowed to be too depressing, I would save the book for that. People expect to laugh when you do stand-up, so a lot of the depressing thoughts I have I have to leave out my act, so I would save them for a book.

Jennifer Coolidge
Jennifer Coolidge  

Her point of view

EDGE: Have you ever seen bad stand-up?

Jennifer Coolidge: Of course. I've had some shows that didn't go well and I've been to shows that didn't go well. And it is really uncomfortable both ways. I hate to be in the audience when an act isn't going well, because it makes me very sad for the person because the person knows it is not going well.

EDGE: What was your bad experience like???

Jennifer Coolidge: I went to this town - this blue-collar town up in Canada - guys in the oil business, they worked on the rigs and stuff. And I just got the feeling - A lot of my audience is hetero-women and gay men and women and some hetero-guys who are fans of American Pie. But if you asked me who my core audience is, I'd say gay men. And this town didn't have any gay men. I don't think it was really their cup of tea. They were yelling 'Take it off. Come on. Take it off.' Like I was going to take my bra off and throw it at them. So it wasn't a good match. But there are some times when you're on the stage and you see someone not tuned it at all - they have dead eyes for ten or fifteen minutes - then they come alive with something you say, like catching a boyfriend cheating or whatever. That's kind of nice that you can bring them in.

But the one good thing about stand-up is that I worry about it less and less. I want people to come and buy a ticket and be happy, and I want to give them all I can give them; but you can't rewrite who you are and my stand-up is really my point of view. And if they don't like what I'm saying you really can't take it personally. You've got to say, 'oh, well.' I think I'm too old to let people make me feel really bad anymore.

EDGE: What's new about your show this year?

Jennifer Coolidge: Last year I did share my disenchantment with the audience, but this trip around I have to have different depressing things to talk about. (laughs). So I will have so new stuff about the hilarious job offers I've had this year. A lot of it is in the show, but what can I talk about? When you have any celebrity at all, sometimes you get these weird offers. Events to show up at and some of them are hilarious. Mine are more like things my agent comes up with - something that sound so humiliating and not what I want to do.

EDGE: But why don't you take them. It could be like baby-sitting again - a source for great material.

Jennifer Coolidge: You're right. Sometimes I take something really humiliating to get some great material. But they're painful. It's so painful going through the humiliation. When you are doing this, all I wonder, is how long must I feel this uncomfortable? I want this show to be more hopeful about the world. I want to steal some upbeat person's point-of-view. I wish I felt more like Kelly Rippa. I wish I had her energy and her spunk.

EDGE: Playing the Wilbur is playing in a Broadway sized house. Have you thought about bringing a solo show to Broadway?

Jennifer Coolidge: I would love to do something like that, but I have to say I learned my lesson at the Barrymore. I think the key is not to be in a too big a theater. You need an intimate space. I think maybe why I sold the tickets for the Wilbur is that I'm from Boston. I think people like it is from the hometown. And they like you have a Boston accent and your name is Jennif-FEH. They like it when it's your town. It has more meaning to somebody.

Jennifer Coolidge appears at the Comedy Connection at the Wilbur Theatre, Saturday, February 12, 2011 at 7pm. For more information visit the /Wilbur Theatre website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].