Retta brought her stand-up act to campus on Aug. 26 in the ATEC performance hall as a part of SUAAB’s Big Bad Comedy Show.
Q: Can you tell me how you got into stand-up?
A: I just started doing open mics. After school — after I graduated — I was in North Carolina and I was doing chemistry. I wanted to be on a sitcom. I saw that, at the time, all these comics had their own sitcoms so I figured I would just take that route. That’s why I started doing stand-up. I would do the open mic in Raleigh, North Carolina. There was a club (called) Charlie Goodnight’s — one of the top tier clubs — and I would do the open mic there.
Q: From where do you pull inspiration for your act?
A: I’m a storyteller by nature. I love to tell a good story — spin a good yarn, if you will. I embellish it. I embellish everything. The (stories) usually come from life. They’re generally stuff that happens to me.
Q: When would you say your big break was?
A: In 1999, I won Comedy Central’s first stand-up competition. That’s when I feel like people in the industry started knowing who I was. I ended up doing Montreal’s “New Faces” showcase at Just For Laughs and I got an agent. I got a deal right after that with ABC Disney. That kind of started the ball rolling. It wasn’t until years later that I did “Parks,” but it was the first time people knew who I was and I got more auditions.
Q: Since “Parks and Recreation” ended what have you been working on?
A: There’s a Bravo show called “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” that shoots in Vancouver. I will be on season two.
Q: Have you ever felt pigeonholed by the fame of your character on “Parks and Rec” when you go into auditions?
A: Not really … I felt pigeonholed before “Parks.” I was always going in for the nurse, the receptionist or the traffic cop. “Parks” let me be a person with a personality. The part that I’m playing on “Girlfriend’s Guide” is completely different than Donna. So I felt I was more pigeonholed before I got “Parks”.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your new character?
A: Let’s see how much I’m allowed to say. I am kind of — not a nemesis — but I butt heads with Lisa Edelstein (who) plays Abby McCarthy, who is the lead in the show. She gets a job where I end up being her supervisor. I get to spar with her verbally, anyway.
Q: Duke is probably pretty different from UTD. What was your college experience like?
A: College was amazing. It was great. It was my first time away from my parents, so I got to be independent and I just had fun. I was not sheltered, but my parents were very strict. They were all about school. Going away … gave me a little bit of freedom. (Duke) had a good basketball team, so there was that kind of energy on campus. I think you make your closest friends in college, and so I got to foster really great relationships with girlfriends that I’m still tight with. I think college essentially formed me into the person (I) finally am. You grow up — especially if you’re doing your own laundry. I think it was the first time I was very independent.
Q: What advice do you like to give to young people who are trying to break into the entertainment industry?
A: If you’re trying to be in standup, I say write everything down. Anything that you think is funny, write it down. Keep a notepad and pen by your bed. I scribbled so much shit on notepads and couldn’t read it, but every once in a while you might get a gem. Then you try every bit at least three times in front of a real audience before you give up on it. With acting, you have to really believe in your heart of hearts that you know you can do it. I’ve had this conversation with Amy (Poehler). (Acting) is the kind of thing you knew was going to happen; it was just a matter of when.
Q: When “Parks” became a steady job, what was the first thing you wanted to buy?
A: I’m a handbag girl. Once a year I would splurge on a designer handbag, but this was before “Parks.” I just kept that going.
Q: How do you think you’ve changed over this journey?
A: Within even the last year, I’ve gotten more confident. As an actor, you can be very co-dependent — like you need reassurance. I’ve gotten a little more confident getting this other job, which is a different character; it’s not pigeonholing me. Sometimes you get scared and you want to take any job. I’ve gotten to the place where I am not doing that anymore. Not that they’re killing themselves to offer me jobs, but I’ve just had an experience where I talked with my managers and I said it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I’ve been saying no recently.