Sitting down with Kelsie Huff is a fun challenge because she often goes off on talents and hardly sits still. At a recent one-on-one meeting with a reporter in a low-key Lincoln Square bookstore coffee shop, it didn’t take long for strangers sipping their latte’s while reading novels to be engaged by Huff. And although they didn’t seek attention, all smiled and laughed —their day made by Huff’s infectious spirit. Such is life around Huff, who never seems to turn off. Indeed, as one of Chicago’s busiest and most respected comedians, her resume indicates as much.
Creator and host of The Kates, an all-female comedy showcase that has been running for a decade; Huff also is a screenwriter, comedy writer, vlogger, occasional actress, sketch comedy and stand-up performer, and an inspiration to many who are trying to follow in her footsteps.
Huff has that small-town kindness that comes with growing up in Richmond, Illinois and growing up with an alcoholic father, something that she’s been open about, saying that for as much hurt it caused and hard challenges that it presented, she is now grateful for the experience that has made her who she is. Huff recently talked about that, along with her comedic goals and why she plans to stay in Chicago unless she’s in the witness protection program with The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito.
CA) You’re a hard person to describe in one sentence because you do so much. How do you describe yourself?
HUFF) That’s a good question. I just use the word comedian. In Chicago, there’s not a huge industry so you have to do lots of things. I do on-camera stuff, I teach, I do stand-up. I travel. I’m definitely not a road dog, those guys are hardcore. But I’ll [perform at] your Moose lodge. I also do solo shows which is more like story telling. That’s not really considered stand-up. But the reason I do it is because of my manic energy and to make money.
CA) What inspired you to create The Kates?
HUFF) I had a one-person show and I wanted to be accountable to create new stuff. I also wasn’t getting hired so I was like ‘Let’s make a space where we can work on new material.’ It wasn’t originally all women, I had invited one dude but he never showed. [Laughter]
We did it and so many people showed up. We started doing them monthly. It’s 7 minutes of whatever you want to do. It started with a lot of people I knew from college and Second City who wanted to try weird characters and it just exploded into this thing because all these women wanted this space. And now, we have 700 women on our booking list.
CA) There still is a need for it?
HUFF) That’s a good question because it’s been around for 10 years. It has made an impact. Women’s spaces are needed no matter what but I’m not sure it’s as needed here in Chicago anymore. Outside in those red states people seem to need it more. And although there are so many opportunities for women here, I do think a space for females is important.
HUFF) Yes. I took over when Cameron left. Cameron wanted to increase more women at open mic, to give them a base so they would feel more confident to get out there. I took the class because I was trying to translate things from a performance to stand-up. I thought I’d take my sad stories about my dead dad into comedy clubs and women would love it, but they didn’t. [Laughter]. I learned the art of editing though and when she left she asked me to take over. I taught that class for five years.
CA) How much of it is giving women a positive place rather that ‘teaching them how to be funny? Can comedy be taught or is it teaching them how to edit down and things like that?
HUFF) Yeah. I think you can teach people how to be creative. To teach someone how to be funny you have to teach them structure, how to tap into their own identity. The thing with women is to teach them not to apologize. They belong there. That’s something that unfortunately still exists, that people feel they need permission. Other things we teach is the difference between a rant and a one-liner and obviously the editing process. Teaching something how to be funny is really teaching someone to believe in themselves. If you can sell a joke, even if it’s not funny — I received a compliment one time from another comic. At least I think it was a compliment. He said, ‘Huff, you know how to sell a joke.’ — If you believe in it, the audience will be like ‘how cool!’ It’s that, that bravado. Once you have that, the writing comes.
CA) Are you still doing your daily vlog? What was the impetus behind that?
HUFF) The answer is no, but what I’m doing now is to getting better at editing, so I’m coming back. I like to give myself these personal challenges.
CA) You’ve done two one-woman shows, “Huffs” and “Bruiser: Tales from a Traumatized Tomboy” — any plans for another? What happened to “Ranch Dressing and Other Coping Mechanisms”?
HUFF) We did that one in Colorado. It was received very well but I haven’t done that one here. I want to make it more humorous because it was a little too close to home. It has the ‘Huff stuff’ about my dad and he’s dead so he can’t fight back. There’s something about it that’s a little too painful. I think I can fictionalize it a bit and that’s what I did. I ended up writing it as a screenplay instead.
CA) Did you get the material for them from doing stand-up or did you have enough just from experiencing your life?
HUFF) For me, I’m someone who needs to write a lot. I usually start with more of a solo show, like a 15 or 20 minute story. With stand-up you have to act and react and get to the punch line. So my thing is to write a bunch about ‘feelings’ [laughs], pull a few things out and use that for stand-up. Then you have opportunities for two kinds of performances. You can do story telling and live lit in Chicago and you can hone it and use it for stand-up as well. My goal for this year is to finally, finally do a comedy album. All these people who started way after me are cranking out these albums and I’m like ‘What are you doing, huh?’ [Laughs]
CA) How much of your stuff do you compare to other comics and your peers rather than just focusing on your own things?
HUFF) That’s such a good question. I bounce back and forth because the thing with comedy is that there is no corporate ladder, there’s no direction. It’s like ‘I’ll try this, I’ll try this and I’ll try this’ and let’s see what happens. You look around to see what others are doing and if you’re doing that to better yourself, I think it can be beneficial. But if you start comparing and thinking, ‘why did I not get that job’ and things like that; that’s when I have to stop looking at Facebook and Instagram and all those things because it can be bad. I try to look at it for inspiration but it’s tricky.
CA) I’ve read that part of the reason for your comedy is that you grew up with an alcoholic parent, and being funny was a sort-of defense mechanism. Can you talk about that?
HUFF) Yeah. I feel like it was survival. I think one of the things humans do is ease the tension with a laugh. Try to turn it around. And you have to be grateful for it. For a long time I was angry and bitter but after therapy, gratitude was one of the positive things that came out of it. I feel like humor is one of the things that survive.
CA) It’s interesting to me because I always think people aren’t so black and white. There’s always a lot of grey.
HUFF) All of us are. That’s the thing about it. You can be abused and still love the monster. How do you get over that? For me it’s stand-up, for others it’s other ways. I’m an alcoholic. I just stopped early on because I knew the end game because of my dad and I’m thankful to him for that. The other thing is, I don’t know. I’m someone who used art to get over it. It is cathartic, it helps you process. If you can use that dark, scary thing and make others and yourself laugh, isn’t that something?
CA) You aren’t afraid to address your own issues in your stand-up. Are you ever afraid to be vulnerable?
HUFF) I think it’s one of those muscles that I flex a lot. I’m not as afraid as I once was. When I think about it, sure, but am I afraid as I used to be? No. I think one of the things that is important is to do the thing you’re most afraid of. Look it in the eye and then it becomes less scary. I think one of the things that screwed my dad up is that he never let himself be vulnerable and talked about things. You are a human being, you’re allowed to feel like, ‘Hey maybe I’m a failure’ and lets talk about why you feel bad about it instead of denying.
CA) You attended Columbia College, where Stephanie Shaw was a big influence on you, along with the NeoFuturists, which she was involved with.
HUFF) Yeah. I was new and had no idea about it. The whole breaking down the wall between you and the audience was great. She was the one who told me to stop hiding behind jokes. She said, ‘this is good, it’s funny. However, there is something else that you’re hiding from.’ She was right. That definitely influenced me.
CA) You also studied at Second City and Improv Olympic.
HUFF) I only took the writing classes at Improv Olympic.
CA) How much did sketch comedy influence your comedy?
HUFF) It did with the character stuff. I’m a high energy gal who uses a lot of characters. And the discipline of it helped me.
CA) How much do you stick to script when you perform? Do you hone it for different audiences?
HUFF) Definitely. For example, if I’m doing a high school reunion it’s different than a show for the elderly. I’m someone who feeds off the energy of the audience so sometimes I’ll chuck it, I’ll chuck the writing to go with the audience.
CA) Many people may not be aware that you worked 12 years in marketing, doing comedy at night. Was the transition to doing comedy full-time scary?
HUFF) Oh, for sure. I’m grateful that I worked so long because I had a little saved. It was definitely scary but I don’t have a mortgage or kids, so if I didn’t do it now, what am I doing?
CA) You’ve said you won’t leave Chicago unless you were in the witness protection program. Still feel the same?
HUFF) You’re really blowing my cover. That is my goal. I love it here. To make money doing what I’m doing seemed like such a crazy goal from where I came from. It didn’t seem possible. The fact that I’ve gotten here feels successful to me, but you get to that point and people ask, ‘Why are you still here?’ and it makes feel strange. But I really like it here and I’ve created a home for myself here. That’s important to me. I want to stay here. If an opportunity comes where I had to leave it would be a hard decision. I feel like one of our greatest exports is our comedians, everybody leaves. It would be great to figure out how to keep them here and have them be successful.