Rachel Feinstein’s career is on fire—we say this figuratively, of course. Her half-hour Comedy Central special aired this July, she’ll be seen in the highly anticipated Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck, she is working on something that she calls her “dream project,” she has a part in an upcoming Chris Rock project, and she keeps on doing stand-up and sketch gigs. Life is good.
However, early in her career Feinstein fantasized about literal fires, specifically at her first stand-up gig. She moved to New York from Bethesda, Maryland and started doing theater and watching a lot of stand-up. After meeting a comedian at a bar in her neighborhood, she decided to give stand-up a try. This was terrifying, of course, giving way to the fire fantasies.
“I kept fantasizing that there was going to be a fire so I didn’t have to perform,” she remembers. “For some reason, my fantasies always involve fires. I’m always praying that there’s some sort of a fire wherever I need to perform. I was really terrified. Instead, since the fire never arrived, I just had four Jack and Cokes and I went on.”
Since then the fire fantasies have thankfully abated. Now, she just likes to escape by watching a good ole fashioned episode of Law & Order: SVU. “I watch a ton of murder,” she laughs. “It’s my favorite thing to just like lie around and watch like a lot of SVU like five hours straight.”
In addition to talking to Feinstein about fires and murder, we touched on other things like her writing process, her ability to do stellar impressions and the time she was horrified about her her boyfriend’s navel ring.
What was your earliest memory of comedy that made you want to do this as a career?
Rachel Feinstein: I remember being in kindergarten and making this face that made everybody laugh, and somebody called it the bagel face. I remember I was really killing with that bagel face. I don’t know what it was but it was some sort of heinous thing I did with my face that made everybody laugh, so I continued to make the bagel face for a while. That’s my earliest memory of pleasing people with that.
How was your experience on Last Comic Standing?
Feinstein: It was scary because, for the first time people were writing about me—and I read every blog. That’s something you should never do. I did everything you shouldn’t do when you’re on something like that, but at the same time, I wish I could go back and enjoy it a bit more, because I think I was so overwhelmed and nervous for the judges and all of that stuff.
What made you so overwhelmed?
Feinstein: I was just so afraid of doing just the most humiliating thing on national television. Thank God it ended up coming off pretty well. The judges were all pretty cool and there were good comics that year. Nobody was cruel to anybody. There wasn’t anybody screaming at me. It was the least demeaning of all the reality shows and that particular season I lucked out. We weren’t sequestered anywhere. Nobody smacked anybody.
When you’re coming up with material, what kind of comedy writer are you? Do you jot down notes throughout the day or do you set aside a couple of hours to write?
Feinstein: I send myself a lot of emails. If I think of something, I’ll send myself an email. I’m sure there’s a better way to do it, but I’m always sending myself emails. I’ve also started to tape a lot of my sets. I was horrible at taping myself for years. I just hate listening to myself, but I feel like it helped me so much once I forced myself to start doing that, because you just invent stuff on stage. You’re in the middle of a joke and you use some weird, cool word and you’ll never be able to find that phrase again if you don’t tape it.
While you’re touring, do you see a difference in reaction to your set based on the region of the country?
Feinstein: It’s hard to say because sometimes you’ll get this surprisingly amazing crowd in a place you wouldn’t expect it. I do think that there’s places where I’m like, “Oh my God! This room is amazing!” in the middle of this place where you wouldn’t think it would be. Or I’ll think, “These people are weirdly accepting.” I guess it just sort of depends on the actual room itself—how it’s set up, if people are listening, if they are allowed to talk and are they too drunk, things like that. Maybe that’s what’s nice about stand-up. People are willing to laugh at a lot in the right environment, and if that’s what they came out to do, you know? I don’t talk about politics a ton, so maybe the things I’m expressing are not as much of a key button.
When it comes to comedy, is there one thing you won’t touch?
Feinstein: No, I can’t think of anything. I think anything can be funny. It depends on how you talk about it. A joke where children die can be funny, but it’s different from saying, “I want to kill children.” I wouldn’t kick off my set like that. I wouldn’t say, “Hey guys, I fantasize about murdering children.” [laughs] But if you made some joke about some crazy killer, that would be different. There’s no subject that’s not funny. That’s how people have dealt with bad things that have happened to them—they found a way to laugh about it.
You do a lot of impressions in your stand-up. Do you remember your very first impression?
Feinstein: I guess I did an impression of my second grade teacher. Her name was Miss Stella. She was this adorable blonde woman who really looks like a Barbie. She was the loveliest looking lady and I wanted to look like her and be her. I wanted her little, adorable South Carolina accent. I did a pretty good imitation. She had this really thin lips, and I even would make my lips look like hers. Lip gloss would glisten on them, and so in my school photo, I did that face and it looks so strange. I look very odd, and my mom still has that picture on her dresser.
So impressions have always been a thing from you from the very beginning?
Feinstein: I remember liking people’s aspects and accents. I liked to talk back to people in their accents when I would go to play at people’s houses. I remember my mom explaining to me you can’t do that when you’re speaking to somebody. It’s not a pleasing voice. It’s not acceptable. I was like, “Really? Why not? It’s so fun.” It turns out you can as long as you’re on a stage mocking them. [laughs]
Do a lot of them come from people that are in your life already or do you kind of pull them out of thin air?
Feinstein: Most of them are of people in my life, and sometimes two people blend into one person for convenience’s sake—like my mom and one of my mom’s friends.
What about the stories that go along with the impressions?
Feinstein: Most of them are true stories. They’re all things people said or did and maybe the voice is a little exaggerated. I can’t think of anything that isn’t something that happened or is based on something that occurred.
So do any of your family members or friends get paranoid that you might include them in your act?
Feinstein: Yeah, people say, “This better not be about me. You better not put me in your skit or your schtick,” all the time. But some people like it. I think my mom likes it, but there are definitely people that haven’t liked it. I remember a boyfriend I used to date. I did an impression of his mother, and he would take this quiet walk whenever I’d do the impression. He’d be like, “You’re going to do the mom thing? I’m going to walk around the block,” and I still feel guilty about that sad man-walk he took while I was mocking his mother. I’m like, “That’s horrible! Maybe I’m just a bad person!” He understood that ultimately I was a comedian and so if you’re going to be a comedian, that’s going to happen. I don’t know if it means that that’s okay or not. It just means that that’s what’s going to happen. So yeah, I did feel sad about his man-walk, but my boyfriend now is cooler with that stuff.
Is there anything about your current boyfriend that you have included in your act?
Feinstein: He had this belly ring that I was horrified by. It didn’t match any other aspect of his personality. [He’s] a pretty manly guy and then all of a sudden he had a belly ring? I’m like, “What in God’s name?” I remember when he first unveiled it. I would have rather seen like a limb in a jar or something like that. I was so disturbed. I was like, “Oh, God, no! You have jewelry?” He was like, “Oh, I just got it,” so he removed it. But I was like, “I have to process this in front of the people,” so I talk about it on stage, and it’s frustrating because he’s so embarrassed about it because he just didn’t realize it. In no other way does he adorn himself or act like that, but he did this thing—this sinister thing—and I had to process it. He’s cool with it. When I talked about it on stage he realized how lame it was once everybody laughed heartily at it.