Leanne Linsky started comedy in a town in the Mojave Desert popularly known as “Las Vegas.” She went there for a Bachelors degree from UNLV, got a job with a company that builds homes, and left for an unexpected love affair with improv comedy.
Since leaving Las Vegas, Leanne has ventured beyond improv into stand-up comedy, commercial acting, and producing a one-woman show, Lady Luck is a Whore. I first met her through the open mic that she has run for the past 7 years, “Casual Sketch,” which I personally found to be one of the warmest and most welcoming crowds of comics I have yet to have come across in New York.
Positivity is an integral part of the way Leanne approaches comedy. “I find ways to make fun of the choices that I made and laugh about that,” she said about her goals in stand-up. “The other thing is, I promised myself I never want to be the girl at home with eleven cats.”
Let’s begin with what you were doing before you got into comedy.
I was married a couple times before I got into comedy. I guess that was part of building material. Then I was living in Las Vegas and I was working for a homebuilder.
So was comedy just something to do outside of home-building?
Yeah, It was weird. I was never into acting or anything in high school or college. I just wasn’t into it. When I was working for the homebuilder, I hosted a lot of events and did training and public speaking as part of my job. After a few years, the directors and a couple vice presidents took me aside and asked, “How come you aren’t pursuing comedy? How come you aren’t pursuing something in entertainment?”
But you’d never considered it before then?
Actually my college advisor told me I should be in the entertainment field. I was like, “Yeah, please, come on.” The vice presidents at work were actually the reason that I signed up for my first comedy class at Second City.
You went to Chicago?
No, this was in Vegas. Second City had a training center in Las Vegas. This was in 2002 when Jason Sudeikis, Kay Cannon, Joe Kelly, and Semus McCarthy were there… The whole cast was fantastic. They had a main-stage show at The Flamingo. I started out with level one improv. I was like, “The guy at work said I should check it out,” so I did. It was amazing!
And it clicked.
Definitely. I immediately signed up for level two. Then I signed up for level three. Then I signed up for level two again. Then I signed up for level three. I think I took all of those classes at least three or four times. Then they had an advanced class, and I took advanced class a couple of times, maybe three times. Then people were like, “UCB is in New York. If you really want to study, you should go to UCB.”
I took time off work, and I went and did levels one and two in New York with Julie Brister and Jason Mantzoukas. Then I went back to Vegas and continued retaking classes. I was in improv troupes; we’d get gigs, we’d perform. I was actually in an improv group that opened for George Wallace once. We performed regularly at a café.
Also, right around that time, UCB LA opened. Before they opened their theater, they started teaching classes. I called and wanted to register for level three. I ended up getting in level four with Ian Roberts. I drove to LA every weekend for about eight weeks.
How far of a drive is that?
Five and a half hours. I would get a hotel and stay overnight in LA. Then I went back to Vegas. A couple years later I got laid off from my day job and decided to move to New York.
What kind of crowds did you usually find yourself performing to in Vegas? Was it always tourist crowds or the indigenous Las Vegas population?
No, it was local; all local stuff. There is a black box theater that partnered withSecond City so their students could perform on the weekends. And a few of the improve teams I was involved in would always be we were always trying to work gigs. We got more did get some paid gigs in Vegas.
The audience usually consisted of people who were there to party. Doing improv, for instance, you’d ask for a suggestion, and it would be something sexual. They’d want you to go dirty. So we’d “go blue”.
In New York, it’s like “Really, you’re going there? Really, you’re relying on that? Come on, get smart.” It’s a very different audience. Try to do political humor in Vegas and people are just like, “Yeah, no, I’m having a martini.”
All sex jokes all the time.
It’s just like “We’re here to party!” or “We’re here for a bachelorette party!” or “We’re here to live it up!” or “We don’t want to have to think.”
What are the weirder shows that you’ve ever done? What kind of audiences?
My friend Rolan [Whitt] and I did a show in Vegas in a parking lot in the rain for the Lions Club. It was great! We got paid. Of course, it was the one time of the year it rained in Vegas.
Was there stuff set up? It wasn’t just like-
Yeah, they had a microphone and everything, but it didn’t work well. Itstarted raining. None of the improvisers showed up. It was just Rolan and I tap dancing for a half hour of nonsense. They were yelling, “We can’t hear you!” When it was over, we gave each other a hug and vowed“We’re going to be friends forever because of this.” And we still are!
So you still felt alright with that?
I think I feel worse when I’m not in a show at all. I’d rather do a show and totally bomb than not do a show at all.
So what happened after you were laid off?
Well I didn’t really know what to do. My co-workers bought me a five-week intensive at iO Chicago and round trip tickets as a going away gift. So I went. And I decided to move to New York at the same time. I took levels five and 6 at UCB and also completed all the classes at the Magnet.
Wow. So once you started you really went full-on into it. Did you feel like you “unlocked” something when you first did it? Had you always been into performing in some way, even if not in theater or anything beforehand?
[Laughs] Yeah. When I was a kid, I used to take a shower curtain. I’d take the shower curtain rod and put it up next to the furnace over to the storage wall in our basement. Then I’d go round up everybody in the neighborhood, and I’d come out and do shows. Basically the show consisted of me dressing up in my mom’s clothing and being like “Here I am!” … That was the show.
[Laughs] That was it?
I took money.
So that was your first paid gig!
I had a hard time getting people to come to those, too.
And that was the improv scene in Waukegan, Illinois for a while. How long was it before you started doing stand-up comedy?
I didn’t focus on stand-up until this past year, although I ran Casual Sketch for seven. I actually started that mic with Mark Grenier. We were an improv duo at the Magnet Theater. We loved performing together, so and we wanted to write sketch comedy. We wanted to write a whole sketch show and all this stuff and said, “We should start an open mic for sketch comedy!” Because the only thing that they really had for working out sketches was Liquid Courage at UCB, and that’s at midnight. So we decided we’d do something earlier on a Sunday evening. So we started it on July 14th, that was on my birthday, in 2007.
And Bastille Day.
Yeah, and Bastille Day. It was Sunday night. A lot of people came, and we were all excited. It was a monthly thing. After about six months, Mark turned the mic over to me and moved on. I kept it. It evolved into people not doing sketches, because it was really hard to write a sketch in time and get a bunch of people over there. People started coming in going, “I wrote a one-person character monologue.” I was like, “Yeah, come on.” I was so desperate to get people on stage, because it was hard to fill a whole hour because people didn’t want to write anything. Then it evolved into storytelling. Then I was getting more and more people. Then a few people were like, “I want to try some stand-up.” I was like, “Sure.” People started doing some stand-up. Then other stand-ups heard about it, so more people started coming. They’re like, “Hey, we heard about this mic.” I was like, “Yeah, the more, the merrier.” Everybody stayed and supported. It was this kooky, weird room where you could do sketch, storytelling, characters, stand-up… It was really fun.
How long did it stay at Magnet Theater?
I was there for three or four years. Then I moved it to Identity Bar because I couldn’t get a weekly schedule at Magnet. The mic kept getting bumped at the last minute. I remembered I had done an event a year before at Identity Bar, and they were really cool about it and had this little, gritty basement. I went, and he’s like, “This is going to be weekly, right? Because it can’t be successful unless you have it build up every week.”
I did it at Identity Bar every Monday night, and then I got a text onenight that Identity Bar closed. I ended up finding two places a month later on the same day: Dixon Place and M. White Bar. Stephen Thorne, who was one of the regular comics at Casual, was bartending at M. White, so he hooked me up there. Then Dixon Place gave me a one-off.But it ended up not working because sometimes their shows run late, and they were concerned that my comics would end up sitting there for twenty-five minutes. They felt bad. They were like, we can’t accommodate it.
This was around the time you also started a weekly showcase, right?
That's why I created “Casual Showcase.” Because I thought, “I don’t want to run another mic.” I want to do something different. What if I do a show at one place and a mic at another? That way I’m not competing with myself. It worked out, but when Dixon couldn’t accommodate us, I just moved both to M. White Bar and ran both. M. White Bar was a great room, although it’s also a big room. It’s hard to fill on a Monday night, so it feels a little lonely. That’s why I ended up moving to Casa Humo. It was a much more intimate space for what we do. It just seemed like the personality was very warm and very welcoming. Felix, the owner there, has been awesome.
Do you prefer performing sketch to writing sketch?
Both. I enjoy writing. My problem with writing is making the time.
Do you just go back and cut it down after you’ve written it?
Yeah. When I did my one-woman show, I rewrote things sometimes thirty times. Some of it I wrote ten times. A couple pieces I actually wrote once and they were fine. You know, that’s in a fifty-five minute show.
What was the one-woman show?
Lady Luck is a Whore. What happened in Vegas stays in the show. It was about being married and divorced and married and divorced and dating and how people perceive you. It’s how people perceive you, and then they get the real story.
Were you doing that at the Magnet as well?
Actually, I premiered it at The PIT and they gave me two runs. During the second run I was working on rewrites and additional material to make it a full fifty-five minutes. It was originally onlythirty-five minutes. Then I took it to Capitol Fringe, the fringe festival in DC. Then I took it to Fringe Wilmington in Delaware. Then I brought it back for the United Solo Festival here in New York at Theatre Row.
Was that collaborative writing or that was all just you?
I wrote everything and I had a really great director. She was an assistant director for Second City Tour Co and had actually cast me in two other plays before that. That’s how I got to know her.
I was really fortunate that she was my director because she read all of my material. She’d hand it back to me and go, “No, I think you need to punch it up.” or “No, I think you need to rework it.” She was direct and to the point; very candid with her criticism. That’s what I needed. She really pushed me. Instead of writing a show in a month, I took a year to really write it.
Are there some lines from your show that stayed as jokes in your stand-up?
A couple. Most of them I don’t use anymore. I’ve totally moved into new material.
Are you ever going to perform it again?
I don’t know that I would perform it again. I might rewrite the whole thing and do it different or do it so that it’s not a one-person show. It wasn’t storytelling; I acted out all of the characters. Each character had their own monologues and things like that where I played an ex-husband or I played my dad. I played my mom. I played God.
[Laughs] They say you shouldn’t do that.
I did. I played God. I played angels first, so I built up to it.
Good, so you didn’t just rush right into being God.
No. The weird part is how I was raised to believe somebody’s there who is listening. Every time I have a major crisis in my life, I was put on hold. Basically, my experience with God was like calling ATT for customer service. I would get people in other countries, everywhere else, and disconnected and all that kind of stuff. Then when I finally got ahold of God, she was playing Angry Birds.
How many segments were there in the show?
I had seventeen different pieces. Some of them took me a year to figure out. They started out completely different. I’d just set them aside and go back to them, and then I’d rework it. Then I’m like, “Nope, that’s still horrible. Still horrible.” I was constantly, constantly, constantly reworking it. I don’t ever see it as done. If I were to do that same show again, I’d have to rewrite it all. I’d have to change it. I’d have to make changes because my director and I, every show and festival, we were making cuts and changes the day of the show. I love that. I like that it’s never done, and you can always make it better. I really like that a lot. At the same time, it’s like, ah, it’s never perfect.
So the writing process for stand-up must be already pretty familiar to you, then.
Yeah, it’s a process. I have a lot of the jokes I do over and over and over until I don’t even have to think about them anymore. That’s the same thing that I was doing with my show. My show I felt I got better when I could forget about words and focus on being present. I feel the same way when I do my stand-up. If I can be in the moment and interact with people and be able to go somewhere else and come back to my material without losing my place or having to think about what joke is next, that’s when I have fun with it. That’s why I do the same sets until I feel super comfortable enough that they can change with the room.
Feeding them off the energy of the room–
Yeah, I don’t know if audience interaction or connection necessarily has means that you talk to the people, but you do have to be present. You have to know what’s going on in the room and where your audience is.
One of the best things about your mic is how much it feels like a home. Everybody is respectful of one another, they listen, and they’re actually interested in hearing how your material develops. There is so much personality at your mic.
Yeah. One of the things when I started it was—When I lived in Vegas, I had actually considered opening my own theater. I spent a year writing a business plan. I met with a bank. I had a broker. I met with different people in the business about partnering, having performers there… One of the major casinos and concert venues, they were willing to partner with me and give me their four walls that were too small for their venue so that I could also have music there.
I was going to get a place on Fremont Street, a non-gaming portion, because the city was going to give deals on liquor licenses where you could get a huge discount because you wouldn’t get a gaming license at the same time. Normally in Vegas, if you get a liquor license, you automatically get a gaming license, and you get seven machines or something.
They were trying something new to revive downtown because all these condos and things were coming in. This was before the market crashed. I spent a lot of time working on this. I learned so much. Anyway, I was all set to open this theater downtown, and then didn’t. One of the things that I learned was from a man who who owned a historic theater called The Huntridge in Las Vegas. He was taking me under his wing a little bit and walking me through some of these. It’s a theater where all these people have come through, before they were known. You know if you were going to the Huntridge, you were going to see an up and coming band. Anyway, when he opened it, that’s not at all what he pictured it to be. He goes, “If I had to tell you any one piece of advice, it would be this: be open to let it evolve into whatever it wants to be. Because when I opened the Huntridge, it was going to be a family venue with movies and such. The next thing you know, I had rock and roll bands coming in and out every night. It wasn’t at all what I wanted it to be, but it was successful being that.”
Now anytime I start something, I remind myself of what he told me, which was be open to letting it evolve and become its own living, breathing entity. Just because it’s not what you intended doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing.
That’s great advice for creating a place to grow.
The other person who I always think of is my mentor from when I worked with the homebuilder, Steve. He was our city president and went on to be the COO of the corporation. He was a fantastic leader. What he taught us is that you accept people. You always want to make people feel welcome, and you need to trust that people are going to do the right thing, because people are good, and you have to believe that.
When people come to my mic, I treat them as I would want to be treated. I incorporate those two things. Sometimes people don’t do what I think they should do or want them to do, but I need to trust them. I have to let them make those choices and do it. I can’t control everything.
It’s a very improv-y mentality. The “Yes, and” mentality.
Yeah, it is. If people are enjoying themselves, you have to think they’re going to make it even better.
And, yeah, granted it’s mostly stand-up, but people do still come by for sketch and storytelling.
Exactly. Last Monday people came by to do sketch. They’re going to come back again. They already e-mailed me. They had a blast.
For a year or two, there was no sketch, but I love every bit of it. I like to see how it grows/evolves. I like to see how people come in. I want everyone to feel welcome, because doing what we do is scary enough. Why does it have to be harder?
What would make you the most happy? What do you have your eye on in particular with comedy? Or are you just happy doing what you do?
I’m very happy doing what I do, and yes, I have goals. I have goals and I have dreams! They’re all broken, but I have them. I would love to get into TV. I’d love to do more commercial work. I really enjoy it when I do it. It goes by so fast. It will last for a day.
With improv, I didn’t have to write. I like the fact that I’m pushed to write now, because I get mad at myself if I haven’t written anything new in a while. For me, writing goes in cycles.
Do you think you’d ever move out to LA to pursue the TV work? If you were to go to LA, would you still pursue as much stand-up?
Yeah, I would. It’s funny because I haven’t considered LA until recently. Yeah, I have been thinking about it a lot. I just went out there to LA last week. I notify my agents (I freelance with a few) that I’m going out of town so they don’t call me for an audition since I won’t be here.
So while chatting on the phone, my agent asked, “What are you going to LA for? Are you doing shows?” I said, “Yeah, I actually did book a show. I’ve been thinking about moving to LA.” He said, “You’d be crazy not to go.” I said, “What?” That was not the reaction that I thought an agent would have. He goes, “No, I totally think that you should go out and give it a try.” “There is twice as much opportunity out there for commercials and TV, and that’s what you want to do. You can still do stand-up out there.” “You’re booking a show out there, and you’re not even there.”
That was very encouraging. The interesting thing was is that I just dida show there. I got home, and they e-mailed me again to book me in two weeks.
Wow, that’s a great reception!
I was like, “Who’s saying it’s so hard?” That was a pleasant surprise.
I had never have anticipated doing stand-up out here. It was a happy accident that someone was like, “Yeah, you should go to a mic.” Then the next thing you know, I’m booking a show. I didn’t anticipate booking shows. I just thought I was going to go to some mics. I didn’t anticipate producing a show. I ended up with two venues. I’m like “What can I do with this other venue? I’ll produce a show.” Again, a happy accident. If I hadn’t gotten that venue, I probably wouldn’t have produced a show.
I don’t know. I think sometimes things just happen in really cool ways. Then at the same time, I’m like, if you had asked me eight and a half years ago when I moved here if I would have written a one-woman show, I would have been like, hell no. Somehow you get yourself into situations that just light a fire under your butt. The next thing you know, you’re making it happen.
People are like, “Would you be happy here?” “Would you be happy there?” I think you can find happiness anywhere, and I think you can find opportunity. You just have to know what you want.
Right. You’re super positive about everything that you approach. Positivity is a trait that not a lot of people possess, especially in comedy. I always feel like that’s probably the thing, it’s what sorts people out the most. It’s an underlying optimism.
The other thing is, if everybody’s following the rules, nobody’s thinking of anything new or exciting or different. Not only that, but everybody’s skill sets are different. People say it’s so competitive. Why don’t you celebrate their success and be excited that someone you know actually got something because that’s awesome. I’m excited when my friends get things. A lot of people say, “I can’t look at Facebook because I hate looking and seeing that other people are doing well.” I think it’s inspiring. I think it tells you how many job opportunities are out there.
Instead of just focusing on “I have to do this” and “I have to do that,” why don’t people just open themselves up to new opportunity? Be like, “I want to find myself meeting new people,” “I want to find myself looking for new ways to perform, new places.” Instead of being so specific, leave yourself open.
I think, on kind of a final note, it’s interesting how positive and optimistic you are as a person, while your comedy is often… dark or sad.
I think my sense of humor was a coping mechanism when things were hard. I find it easier to make fun of situations, especially going through divorce. I would find ways to deflect. Comedy would do that. I would make a joke out of it, and it would ease the tension. It would take the awkwardness away from me.
What is actually the most satisfying part about telling a joke to you, especially if it deals with something sad?
That I can make it funny; that I can make myself laugh; that I can find a way to laugh at myself. The other thing is… I find it so much easier to talk about something I really feel about versus something I could care less about. I know a lot of comics, they talk about observational humor, play on words, things like that, but they’ll never talk about their personal life.
That’s totally OK. I have a hard time writing that way because I connect more with things that really matter to me.
What do we spend most of our time thinking about? We spend time thinking about people we love or people we’ve lost or heartbreak or things like that. If I’m going to spend my time thinking about those things, then that’s what’s going to end up in my comedy. That’s how my mind works.
It’s funny because as my set changes and evolves, I find myself easier to let things go. I like, I’m done with that now. I let it go, and then something else comes in. Now I find that things aren’t maybe so heavy. My material changes over time. That’s refreshing.
I find ways to make fun of the choices that I made and laugh about that. Have fun with myself. The other thing is, I promised myself I never want to be the girl home with eleven cats.