san fernando valley
A life full of laughter has been comedian Melissa Villaseñor’s destiny. She talks to us about starting young, how her work has evolved, and why you shouldn’t rely on one thing to make you happy.
I usually ask people if they remember their first week in LA, but...
Yeah—no, I’ve always been from here.
Did you ever want to live anywhere else?
No, I'm so happy here. I'm always hanging out with my parents and my siblings. I guess it would be different if they weren’t so cool…. Then I would want to get out and go somewhere else. But I think I'm so attached to how fun they are.
I'm so grateful. It’s really a perfect place and I’m in a perfect position. It would be really hard for me if I was in another state or if there was no comedy scene here.
Did you grow up watching a lot of comedy?
Yeah. It was all about the Jim Carrey movies, Ace Ventura and Saturday Night Live. Dana Carvey was my fave. All the ‘90s stuff; I grew up with that.
I started off pretty young. When I was 12, I realized that I could do impressions, voices, and sing. At school I loved making people laugh. I got started at the Laugh Factory Comic Camp when I was 15.
What was the camp like?
I think it was meant for kids who have trouble in their life, a place where they could escape and have fun, which is really cool.... But I just found it online and was like, “I want to be onstage doing my voices and stuff.”
After high school, I went to community college for a bit. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew deep down I wanted to do comedy. I did some pretty cool stuff early on in the game.
When I was 19, my friend passed along my standup clips to some people who worked at the soap Days of Our Lives and they loved it. The show then had me come in for a little over a year, just filming stuff behind the scenes for DaysofOurLives.com.
It was fun. I brought along my friend and he filmed everything. We would do silly sketches on the sets when they weren’t filming, or we would interview some of the stars.
At that point were you already doing standup regularly?
I was doing open-mic nights. There was this Sunday show at the Ice House Annex in Pasadena that I would do often.
How did you go from doing impressions to crafting stories?
It took years. I’m still working on it. My set is a balance of telling stories about me and using impressions to tell my point of view. I think I started strengthening my set on the road and after I was on America’s Got Talent. I was on the road a lot doing colleges and clubs. That stage time really forced me to get to that place, and that’s when I started to piece it together.
Is standup a form of therapy?
Yeah, it is. There are some nights where I'm not in the mood. I'm like, “I don’t want to go onstage. I’m not feeling happy now.” And then my bits really make me happy. When I walk out there I think, “Oh man, that voice just makes me feel good.” Even if it’s not a voice bit, if it’s just me complaining about something, it feels great.
Do you just crack yourself up all the time?
Most of the time, yeah. Most people won’t get it but I think it’s funny. I am pretty quiet offstage, though. I save my energy for my set.
There’s this perception that a lot of comedians come from a troubled background. What path led you to it?
I'm just really a big fan of comedy. I just enjoy making people laugh. I had low self-esteem growing up and I was never really confident in myself. But doing the voices, I felt like that made me cool.
I think all comedians are sensitive deep down. We all just want to make people laugh. I don’t think everyone is as strong as they seem. I have comedy friends that are so tough onstage, but I’ve seen them offstage and they’re so fragile.
Can comedy ever be just “a job”?
No. From what I’ve seen, I feel like it’s all very personal. I feel like all the comedians I know, they’re telling their own stories. I think it’s very personal. I've never seen a comedian not be connected to it or affected by it emotionally.
Who are you inspired by these days?
It’s really cool because a lot of the comedians I look up to are my friends. Maria Bamford is really inspiring. Whenever I meet up with her and we work on new jokes, I always leave feeling like some of her confidence rubbed off on me. I’m like, “I need to keep this feeling as long as I can!”
She knows what she likes. She walks around like, “I like that!” pointing to someone’s shoes. And she really speaks up for herself when she needs to. That’s something I’ve taken away from her. I take care of myself, respect myself, stand up for myself. I’m trying to do that and not let people walk on top of me.
I used to always be like, “Yeah, go ahead.” But now I say, “Hold on, I would appreciate…” Being assertive without being a—
What would you like to see yourself doing in the next five years?
I would like my own TV show. A single-cam comedy, a show where I could weave in impressions and silly stuff, and also be myself. I think that would be great.
Would you ever want to be on Saturday Night Live?
Yeah. I actually did audition when I was 21 and I always send them a tape every summer. I still see that in my heart.
I feel as I’m getting older, I’m getting more spiritual. I’m starting to understand that when I visualize something happening and believe in it, I start seeing results. So I put myself out there. I put out into the universe what I want and I feel like the universe will give back what’s best for me.
There’s a book called Infinite Self that really changed my perception of things. It’s based on not being attached to things... having no expectations. I’m trying to balance that a little bit more so I don’t feel so crushed.
So when things don’t work out you don’t take it so much to heart? Doing standup has to be tough because you’re putting yourself out there for rejection.
Oh yeah, last night I did a set and there was no one there, like two or three people. I thought I would at least make them giggle.
I’ve been on a roll this past year, getting every show and doing well, but this was my first time the audience was completely silent. I was just taking it all in and I got into a really bad mood onstage. Not towards the audience, just with myself. You think you’re doing great and then wham!
Have you ever just walked off the stage?
No. I’ve wanted to, on many sets, but I’ve always stuck it out.
How do you deal with hecklers?
Thankfully, I haven’t had anything that bad because the stuff I’m talking about wouldn’t really make anyone speak up. I don’t know how to handle them. I think people get a sense that I’m a nice person and I don’t want to start trouble.
I had one show where a lady in the front was really drunk and she was guiding me on my jokes like, “That one was good”.... “That wasn’t funny”....“You suck.” And I was like, “Oh, wow!” I felt like I was about to cry and then someone at the back shouted out, “Keep going, Melissa!” And I did, but I wanted her out. I think now I would ask for someone like that to be removed.
Some comics know what to do. Have you seen Rick Ingraham? He’s one of my favorites—he does all crowd work and it’s brilliant. He does a lot of stuff that’s controversial and someone will speak up and try to bring him down and boom! He’s so smart. I just sit there living vicariously through him, like, “Oh man, it feels so good!”
Could you ever imagine doing something that wasn’t comedy?
Oh, yes. Actually, I do other things. Comedy is not my only true love. I like acting and I write songs, which will be on my upcoming album. It’s a mix of my standup and songs. They’re emo songs, they’re not comedies.
I really love singing. I could easily slip into being a musician for a while. A lot of comedians I know are great musicians and singers.
Do your parents understand what you do?
Yeah, they’re awesome. At the beginning they thought it would just fade away but now they totally get it. I think they realize I’m doing what I love. It’s a big part of what keeps me going.
My mom always says, “It’s not luck, it’s just perfect timing.”
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
If you don’t know what you want to do, keep exploring, playing around, and see what you like. Once you’ve found it then believe in it, keep going, create your own stuff. Be easy on yourself and enjoy creating, and don’t compare yourself to others because everyone is so different.
Also, don’t rely on one thing to make you happy. Do lots of things, hang out with friends, and be silly, so you don’t have too much pressure focused on one thing.
What does LA mean to you?
I would say opportunity.... and sunshine!
Keep track of all of Melissa's news at melissavillasenor.com