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From Corporate to Comedy: Comedienne Rachel McDowell

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Photo credit Michael Schwartz

Photo credit Michael Schwartz

Rachel McDowell is a lovely and inspiring comedienne. I first saw her perform at Sardo’s about 6 months ago and I was blown away by her charm, her humor and her story. Rachel was kind enough to take some time to answer some of my questions below. Enjoy and be inspired!

You worked at a corporate job for 10 years and then decided to quit to become a full-time comedienne. Do you have any other income? Or do you support yourself just through comedy?

Quitting my job was a HUGE decision for me. I had a full-blown career and made a great living. At one point I loved my job, but a larger company purchased my company and the pressures increased. Prior to that, my job was to manage customer relationships, after the acquisition, my job became all about numbers. I was miserable. The big lesson in this for me is that sometimes you have to be pushed out of the nest. Had my job not changed, I would have stayed there for a very long time. The negative shift in my career forced me to evaluate what made me happy.

Since this is a magazine with a focus on girl power, I think it’s worth mentioning that when I began my career in software, a female co-worker mentioned the Employee Stock Purchase Program – which allows you to buy stock at a discount every month with pre-tax income. I did not pay any attention to my finances or savings outside of my 401k contribution, but I listened to her. I joined the program, and just sat on the stock. My male counterparts sold theirs immediately to make the 15% profit – but I listened to my female colleague. When my company was purchased, our stock went up to $45 a share. Prior to that it was a miracle if it got to $30. Through the years, I had accumulated enough shares to create a nice little savings account for myself. By cashing in those shares, I had enough money to live for a year without additional income. I feel so blessed to have this opportunity. I had always wished and prayed somebody would hand me the money or support me to do something I loved and in the end, I handed myself that check. What an empowering and amazing feeling.

What is your dream? To have your own TV show? To travel the world doing stand-up?

I honestly don’t know what I want to do – I remember listening to an interview with Kathleen Madigan, a well-known road comic. She was asked why she thought there were not more female comics and she talked about the lifestyle. She said that being on the road is hard and that many women hang it up to have more stable careers – being a writer and/or having families. That really struck a chord with me. I have done and do a little time on the road – with comedy and I traveled extensively in my professional career – and it really DOES get old and it’s exhausting. Before I started traveling with my job, I used to think people were so lucky to travel. I remember them talking about how, yes, they went to Nashville, but they pretty much saw the airport and their hotel room. I rolled my eyes at those people, thinking they were so privileged and really took it for granted. Once I started to travel, the world opened up, but boy I was tired. To be a road comic isn’t very glamorous, it’s a constant hustle. – the ENDLESS hustle – the ENDLESS self-promotion. I do know that I don’t want to go back to the corporate world. I don’t want to work all the time counting the days until the next holiday being glued to my emails. I want to support myself and make a nice living doing something that makes me happy. That might be writing…I’m taking acting classes and have studied voice acting for years and would love to get into commercials.

In your act you joke about losing weight. How has weight loss affected your comedy?

This is such a big question that really is so much of my life. At my biggest, I was in massive denial (pun, most definitely intended). In my joke, I say I lost 50lbs, but it’s more than that…I just am not done with this journey and am not ready to share my numbers just yet. I never thought of myself as a self-deprecating comedian – I never liked it when large comics did a bunch of fat jokes. I did notice that as I started to lose weight, certain jokes didn’t work as well. My size set me up for something different…I’m not sure exactly what it was but it started to wane. I was performing one night in the Belly Room at the Comedy Store. I sat in while Whitney Cummings did a quick set in the Main Room before I went upstairs. Whitney’s comedy is much different than mine and I’m certainly not comparing my appearance to hers, but as I watched her, I noticed that she didn’t mention her appearance at all. She is such an attractive woman (in my opinion, stand up is the one place where being thin and attractive can actually works against you – this is a game for misfits), and her jokes were pretty blue, her style was aggressive. I felt like she just threw her material right in the crowd’s face….she made no apologies for being a beautiful woman or for her jokes being off color. She was who she was and she didn’t give a shit if you liked it or not…and I very much liked it.

That same night, I ended up closing out the show in the Belly Room. By the time I got on stage, there were maybe 10 people left, they were tired, pretty buzzed and mostly young guys. Not at all my primary demographic – I fancy myself a club comic, I’m nice, I’m clean, I’m not edgy. I was able to harness what I watched Whitney do several hours before, and I just threw my jokes at them. I was fearless and unapologetic for who I was – I even tossed in some of my edgier PG-13 material – which did great in that crowd. It was one of the most fun sets I’ve had on stage. I learned so much from watching her, and I haven’t forgotten that – I became a stronger performer that night. I have nothing to apologize for or worry about – so I’m not going to waste anybody’s time with that muck.

It seems like there are still more men than women doing stand-up. For me that seems kind of like kind of an advantage for women… What are your thoughts?

I agree that it can be an advantage. I used to think that being one of the few women made me more memorable immediately. I’m actually noticing more and more women on shows – I can no longer bank on being the only chick. 🙂 I do think while bookers want to have women on…they don’t want too many women on one show unless it’s booked as a female night of comedy – that is something you don’t see with guys. A show full of men is nothing but a show.

Comedian Portraits And Performances At The Ice House

photo credit Michael Schwartz

Are there any classes or books that you would personally recommend to someone just starting out in stand-up?

Take any class – just to find a network of other people at your level. Open Mics can be very scary – trying stand up for the first time in a safe class setting is invaluable! I have lots of ‘how to’ books, but I haven’t really read them. I do think I read Stand Up Comedy: The Book by Judy Carter when I first started to dabble – I’m sure it helped to create a foundation of understanding how to formulate a joke.

I have gotten the most out of books about comedians and their stories and experiences. Looking at my book shelf now, I see, I Killed, I’m Dying Up Here, The War for Late Night, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Comedy At the Edge, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, Carol Burnett’s One More Time, Lucille Ball’s Love Lucy, Bernie Brillstien’s Where Did I Go Right. Those books are excellent to tell you what this business really is and what it actually looks like. I listen to comedy podcasts like WTF and learn so much. You can’t fake or be born into comedy – this doesn’t just get handed to you. The household names we know, and are going to know, worked their asses off and made sure that they were ready when the opportunity presented itself. Also, when the opportunity failed…they were persistent and stayed course. That is one of the most valuable lessons that I have learned in the last 3-4 years. Negative experiences and losses are necessary to make you change direction or to open up your life for something better. Life is long – there is no such thing as your ‘one shot’.

For more Rachel, please visit rachelmcdowell.com. Rachel has performed at Ice House, Flappers, Punchline, Improv (San Jose, CA), Improv (Pittsburgh, PA) and many more.

About Marilyn Anne Michaels

Actress/Waitress/Writer/Comedienne - Marilyn Anne Michaels is a member of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. She trained at the Second City Chicago Conservatory Training Center and did tons of theatre before moving to Los Angeles in 2006. Marilyn co-created and starred in the award winning web series The Best Friend. Marilyn does not like writing bios.