Woman of the Week
The Hilarious Carrie Seim
“Thanking her way to the upper middle”
Who would believe a crop of tomato seeds would someday sprout a respectable comedy career? Probably no one – until they met Carrie Seim. The native Nebraskan self-described “science nerd” turned Chicago grad student turned L.A. comedy fixture (on the stage and the page) is a rising starlet packing the three B’s: beauty, brains, and balls. How does someone with smarts and wit aplenty survive in vapid LA-LA-Land? Apparently by being extraordinarily polite and grateful. I got news for you, Hollywood divas – this one’s proof that good girls CAN and DO get ahead.
You have a multi-faceted career as a writer, actress, even political satirist. Plus you have a Master’s from the renowned Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Can you talk about your professional journey?
I’ve been writing since I was very young – plays for my classmates, a neighborhood newspaper, a letter begging President Ronald Reagan to let me move into the White House. I was also a big science nerd – I grew tomato seeds from space in my backyard and meticulously measured their growth. Until I got bored and began falsifying results. I rue the day NASA discovers those Romas did not, in fact, make it to nine feet, 10 pounds.
In college, I studied engineering, but was miserable about the idea of doing physics and wearing unflattering pantsuits the rest of my life. As solace, I auditioned for a sketch comedy group. It was the first time in my life I felt so viscerally alive. After each show, I would think, “This moment is it. How do I keep having this moment the rest of my life? (Except with better bangs?!)” After college, I moved to L.A. for a job with the Sundance Film Institute’s international writing program. I started taking improv classes at the Groundlings Theatre and performing with comedy groups around L.A. But I knew I needed to devote more energy to my own writing and performing, so I moved to Chicago, where I did graduate work in journalism at Northwestern and studied with The Second City conservatory. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have jobs that allow me to explore a wide variety of my interests. Each stop on the way has led me to an even more fascinating place to explore. I’ve written about Capitol Hill politics, immigration policy reform, saltwater crocodiles and Paris Hilton’s panties for Newsday, The Chicago Reporter, National Geographic Television, Channel One News, and the E! Network (not necessarily in that order.) I’ve also appeared in TV shows, commercials, some inappropriate but wildly popular Internet spots and my own sketch comedy show, “Midwestern Wisdom” at the Comedy Central Stage.
What’s it like moving from the wholesome Midwest to the crazy world of L.A.?
I lucked out growing up in Nebraska in such a loving, grounded family. It’s helped me stay off the crazy wagon and given me amazing material that’s paradoxically exotic to urban audiences. I’m also exceedingly polite, which, like a good foundation garment, opens doors. I write thank you notes compulsively. Instead of sleeping my way to the top, I’ve thanked my way to the upper middle.
You have so many interesting projects on your plate. Can you talk about the various things you’re working on?
I have an improviser’s instinct to say “yes and” to everything. This means I have about seven projects going at once. It keeps life interesting and slightly atilt, which is a good state for any sort of creative work. I write a humorous dating column for “The Tyra Banks Show,” I teach improv at The Groundlings and I’m working on several comedy-writing projects, as well as performing in a weekly improv show. I’ve contributed political satire to JibJab.com and recorded voices for a new celebrity-parody show for Sony’s online portal, Crackle.com. And I’m also a contributor to Ms. BettyConfidential herself!
You’ve studied with the prestigious SNL breeding grounds – The Second City and The Groundlings. Can you explain the difference between improvisation, stand-up, and sketch comedy?
Much like tomato seeds from space, comedy comes in all sorts of flawed mutations. When you’re doing stand-up, you’re flying solo. I’m more of a co-pilot kind of gal; I love the “group think” and teamwork involved in performing improv and sketch comedy. The thrill of improv is that you have no script – you make everything up on the spot in front of the audience. It’s kind of like a magic show, except with fewer large-breasted assistants from former Soviet republics. The rewarding part about sketch comedy is you get to write your own material – I feel most fulfilled when I perform material I’ve written myself.
I’ve found that the best comedians seem to have a keen sense of observation, particularly for detail, not to mention an ability to tell a great story. What do you think are the keys to good comedy?
You’re absolutely right – storytelling and observation are critical to improv and sketch comedy. Some tragic personal flaws help as well. I think one of my strengths in comedy is self-deprecation, a trait well honed in the humble Midwest and incredibly freeing in comedy. You have to be fearless about making yourself look ridiculous, about the possibility of failing. You also have to be okay with exploring the dark side of things to mine the humor out of banal situations. It’s the adage that you can’t have light without dark. (My God, somebody stop me before I start invoking Bob Ross and Titanium White to prove a philosophical comedy point!)
Who are your biggest comedic influences?
So many! Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Tina Fey, Tracey Ullman, Amy Sedaris, David Sedaris, Steve Martin, Joan Cusack, Sarah Silverman. I had the honor of meeting former SNL cast member Ana Gasteyer when I was in college. She gave me some great advice: “Don’t take a job getting coffee for some guy just to get your foot in the door when you could be writing and performing your own material.”
What are your favorite sources of material – both as a writer and performer?
I always carry a notepad in my handbag. I write down lines of dialogue I hear at the post office or take notes on the couple in my local park who wear identical, long-sleeved jogging suits straight out of MC Hammer’s closet. My journalism training helps out in this department – I’m a good observer of detail and gutsy enough to talk to neighbors or co-workers to get a sense of their point of view on the world. For some reason strangers have a compulsion to spill their guts to me, so I get marvelous material that way.
You’ve had the honor of auditioning for SNL – a comic actor’s dream! What was that experience like?
It was amazing and humbling. One of the SNL producers saw me in a show at The Groundlings. I had no idea he was in the audience. After the show he walked over and passed me his card. Just as I was about to respond that I would indeed go on a date with him so long as he promised to wear his suit, he told me he was a producer from SNL and thought I was “very funny.” I had the overwhelming urge to both kiss him and throw up. A few weeks later he called and left the best phone message I’d ever gotten: “Carrie…how’d you like to come to New York and audition for Lorne Michaels?” Just days later, I was putting on wigs for Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey. When Tina laughed at one of my characters, well…more happy vomit.
Your hilarious essay, “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace,” was published in the book Mortified: Love is a Battlefield. How did you get involved in that project?
Mortified is this hysterical show where people read their real middle school diaries and essays aloud, all in the name of public mortification. I read my 7th grade essay “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” at the shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s a severely somber piece about how I was being sexually harassed constantly by the boys in math class, like Clarence Thomas harassed Anita Hill. In reality (and this is backed up by generous photographic evidence), boys weren’t even speaking to me in 7th grade, much less crying out “Yeah, I’d like to hit that.” Anyway, the show’s producers liked my essay and included it in their book, which is filled with amazingly awkward dating disasters.
So much accomplished in such a short time. What’s next?
Two words: Tomato Farm.
Rapid Fire Questions
When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I used to tell my mother I didn’t need to do chores because: “I’m going to be a writer in a big city and have a maid!” (Greetings from Los Angeles, Mom! Wish I could talk, but I’m writing a script while Teresa runs the vacuum!)
What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
I went to engineering camp if that gives you any hint to my social circle. I also spent a lot of time in the drama department doing plays, musicals, and show choir. Nothing like show choir to keep you safely away from the popular kids.
What women from the past do you most identify with?
Typhoid Mary. Talk about brand awareness. She was a pioneer for working women and wouldn’t quit just because some “health official” said so. Sure, she had her critics. But don’t all powerful females?
What’s your workout?
I run in the park every morning next to a homeless woman obsessed with my ovaries. Far better motivation than a trainer.
Cat or dog?
I’m deathly allergic to cats, but spent my childhood living with anywhere from three to 11 of them, if you count the time the neighborhood stray got preggers and we took in her feral kittens. Now I live with a puppy named Chester. He’s great, but I find pets less exciting when they don’t have the potential to end your life.
What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
Have you ever experienced the toe-curling pleasure of watching Big Love while eating a chocolate croissant? Polygamy and antioxidants are my cocktail of choice.
What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. You can take the girl out of the engineer, but you can’t take the engineer out of the girl. (I mean that in the most inappropriate sense possible.)
If you could have dinner with any two people, whom would you choose?
Steve Martin and Albert Einstein. And by “have dinner” I mean “heavy pet.”
What is the one thing you want or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
I hope the next generation of girls realizes that being rejected by boys at a young age because you’re too smart or too funny or too not-a-slut is a good thing.
If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I’m saving up for grills. My teeth are so boring and white.