Interview by Elyse Wild
Comedian Fortune Feimster is performing on March 14 at Fountain Street Church as a part of LaughFest. Her Netflix special, Sweet & Salty, is an intimate and hilarious autobiographical look at her life growing up in the South and her journey to realizing that she was gay. We spoke with Feimster about how her dynamic identity allows her audience to access different points of view through comedy, her early career in improv and more.
Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: You are going to be performing in a church while you are here in Grand Rapids, and your special was filmed in the McGlohon Theatre, which is also a church! Was there a reason for recording it there?
Fortune Feimster: It really was just a coincidence. We had actually booked the show first before we had sold the special. Once I sold the special, I was like, “Hey, I’m doing a show in Charlotte in September, is there any way we can make that the special?” It took a lot of arranging, but they finally figured it out. And then I was researching the theater, I found out that it also serves as a church. And I thought, “This is hilarious. Of coure it’s a church!”
Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: Yeah, it kind of works out really well with the material that you do in the special.
Fortune Feimster: Yeah, it felt very fitting, too, because just having grown up going to church every Sunday, and the whole special is very coming full circle. It felt like the perfect fit.
Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: Something I really appreciate about your comedy is that you seem to occupy this space that reflects your identity. You’re part of the gay community and you’re Southern. At first glance, that can appear to be the ultimate dichotomy, but I think your comedy allows people who may relate to one of those things to access a different perspective through humor. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Fortune Feimster: I think when you’re at a time where people like to identify as one thing. “I am this thing or that thing and this is how I want to be looked at or reffered to.” And that’s great for people if that’s where they find their place in the world. For me, you know, I thought of myself as more than just one thing. I’m more than just a gay person. I’m more than just a Southerner. I’m more than just this thing. And so I really wanted this special to reflect all the different sides. I think when people think of gay people, they have a certain view of what that looks like. And I’m saying, “Hey, I am gay, but I’m also Southern, and all these things a Southern person can relate to, I can also relate.” So I was trying to bridge the gap to be like the South is viewed as kind of being narrow-minded and or behind the times. I am not saying that doesn’t exist, but also I am from there and I am this type of person and I know if I exist, then a lot of other peope exist like that too. It was just kind of a nice thing to be able to tell that story.
WLM: I think you pulled off bridging that gap really well. The special comes across as so intimate because you are talking about your life so much.
FF: Which is funny, I didn’t really set out to do that. I never thought when was prepping this special that I would be so autobiographical, but I just found as I was working on material, that all of the stories I kept coming back to were childhood stories, college stories, and at one point I remember having this sort of lightbulb moment where I go, “Oh my God, Look at all of what I have! This is a set, and it’s all coming back to who I am in my life trying to find myself. So it sort of revealed itself.
WLM: One of my questions was that as you were working the material, if it organically happened or if you had like a specific theme in mind, but it sounds like it was really organic.
“As a comic, your main goal is to make as many people laugh as possible, so you have to step outside of yourself and think about, ‘What is the world beyond my level? What are the things that people are going through? What are the stories that people can relate to?’”
FF: I think when I was first doing this set, it sort of had this rule following theme where I was kind of talking about how I’m a person that follows the rules. I took a lot of those same stories, but then once my producers came onboard, espcially Page Hurwitz cause we have been friends for so long and they know me so well, they took a look at what I was doing, they said, “Well, what about this story? What about that story? This is a part of your life that’s really interesting.” Like, the debutante thing — I never talked about.
WLM: That’s such a great story!
FF: Yeah, and I never thought it was interesting. I was like, “No one cares about that.” She was like, “I’m telling you, it’s interesting because you’re coming from a different perspective of like not having money.” and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I guess I can see that.” The debutante story, I wrote like three weeks before the special. So I was scrambling at the end to, like, really make some of these stories work and make sense. But the producers’ whole thing was like, “We know you, and we know that there is so much more to you than people realize,” and they really wanted me to show that in my special. So they really helped round that out, and fill in those gaps of that journey and become a very autobiographical look into my life.
WLM: Do you picture yourself continuing to be autobiographical with your future specials?
FF: Every comic, once they put out special challenges, you have to throw away a lot of your act and write a whole new act. And, you know, sometimes people want to hear some of the hits from the special. I’m in that stage right now figuring out what is that I want to talk about, where am I in life? What do I think people want to hear about? I try to look at my life and find the humor part and the interesting parts of it. It’s still a work in progress, but it seems like it will pick up where the special left off. It left off at I am engaged, so now I think it will start with what it’s like living with someone and being in a serious relationship, What it’s like being an adult and how I have navigated that. This last special goes through a lot of childhood. I think this one will be a bit more of me as an adult, and occasionally looking back to childhood things because, I just think that’s just funny and relatable.
WLM: On Instagram and you know, you do these super funny characters. There are all different kinds of platforms that comedians exist on now: the stage, podcasts or Instagram and other social media. They all seem to be compartmentalized — that the humor that takes place in those pipelines doesn’t really cross over. You did a little bit of a tease in the special for people who know your character Brenda from Instagram. That was a treat for people that know that character. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how you exist as a comedian in these other spaces thats not standup?
FF: I’m sure there were plenty of people that came to that part of the special and were like, “Huh?” That was definetly a nod to the people who follow me on social media. One thing about my career, and I think a lot of people don’t know this, is that I started in imrpov and sketch. I was at the Groundlings Theater out here in L.A. for about six years. It’s a place where a lot of Saturday Night Live people studied. I thought that would be my path for a long time — I tested twice for SNL back in 2009-2010. Most of my early career was very character based. I had costumes and wigs and I started standup because I didn’t feel like my voice was fully coming through with improv and sketch. Stand up was where I finally got to tell my stories about who I was. I have this whole arsenal of characters and sketches that I spent years doing. Brenda is a newer one, but that was my strong suit for the longest time, was my characters.
Now that I do stand up, I almost never do characters. My agent is always like, how in the world would you get something that shows all these characters? My stand up is so personal with stories that are real, so to then ask the audience to expand their reality for me to play a character — I haven’t figured out how to do that, but I definitely want to at some point figure out a way to show all these characters I’ve done over the years in a fun way.
WLM: One thing that you mentioned in the special is that after you came out, your mom really jumped in with both feet to being an ally and a support system. Can you tell me about that?
FF: She probably surprised herself because having kids in the time that I grew up, people just didn’t think about the gay thing as much. Like I talk about my special, representation wasn’t prevelant. So people didn’t think, “Oh, is my kid gay?” It was just like, “You were a tomboy.” Once I came out, my mom was very supportive. She was concerned for sure, because her thing was, “I don’t want life to be more difficult for you in any way, and I know how much hate there is.”
WLM: That’s a valid concern.
FF: Yeah, it was more like, “I love you and I want to protect you, and I hate that people might hate you who don’t even know you because you’re gay.” That just comes with the territory, so the protective part of her started to come through. She was like, “I want to help other parents who have kids that are gay if they’re struggling with it. I want to help them see that it’s OK to support their kids.” She became very invovled in PFlag, which is an organization of allies for gay people. She saw a need for it in the area that we lived in, because there are areas around our hometown that are very conservative. She found very quickly through trying to help high schools have Gay-Straight Alliances and certain principals were saying no. She was trying to PFlag events at restaurants around different towns, and at first they would say yes, then they would find out about hte organization and say no. She started seeing firsthand the prejudices that gay people themselves knew existed but other people were like, “no, there are no prejudices anymore.” She took on this role of helping to open people’s minds and help them get to the point where they accept gay people. She took it out of her own personal mission and has been super involved ever since. It’s really neat that she does it.
WLM: That’s amazing because she could easily just be proud of you and happy for you and left it at that. To help other people is a huge thing.
FF: I’m proud of her.
WLM: You’re creating a lot of visibility for the gay community, and it seems to work really well because you bring your whole identity to your content: You’re a comedian, you’re from the south, you’re a lesbian. You’re so talented and obviously hard working. It seems like that goes a long way for representation as opposed to someone who may not be putting their content first.
FF: I guess it depends on what kind of comic you are and what your goal is. For me, I want to be a great comic and make people laugh. Of course, we need gay comics because it is good for the gay community to be able to relate to things they are talking about. I talk about gay things because it is a part of me. As a comic, your main goal is to make as many people laugh as possible, so you have to step outside of yourself and think about, “What is the world beyond my level? What are the things that people are going through? What are the stories that people can relate to?” You have to mine all kinds of facets of life. If you focus on just being gay, it can become one note, where you are “a gay comic,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a matter of what you want to accomplish. I think it’s a more personal journey for the performer.
I always wanted to be able to relate to as many people as possible, because I do think at the end of the day when you can reach across the aisle to whatever person it is, it’s a good thing. I have had very conservative people writing me lately, saying “I just want you to know that I’m a conservative and I’m male, and I really like your stand up.” And I go, “That’s great!” And they say, “I don’t know why I felt the need to tell you that.” I say, “Listen, I appreciate that because I’m not trying to live in a world where everything is ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We may believe such different things, but there’s gotta be something on a human level that we can see eye-to-eye on.”
I think if you have more people trying to find that human connection, we’ll be a lot better off instead of living in a world where we’re always wanting answers and being afraid of each other. If I as a comic can do anything to make people feel better about gay people or for it not to feel like such a scary thing, I’m happy to be that representation.