True charisma: A Q&A with Kelsie Huff
today at 12:04 am
I meant to tell Kelsie Huff how I first heard her name. It’s so delightful speaking with her that we went off in other directions. How she thought about radio, but ended up in comedy. How she inherited Feminine Comique, the first all-female stand-up class, from Cameron Esposito. Why she created the hilarious all-women comedy group the kates. How she became a headliner in Chicago’s competitive comedy scene (and what she did when it didn’t go as planned). Her path to becoming a popular Chicago television personality with frequent spots on ABC’s Windy City Live and WCIU’s The Jam and her leadership of the legendary Lincoln Lodge’s comedy training program.
So where did I first hear Kelsie’s name? Nine years before my interview with Kelsie, almost to the day, I spoke with Cameron Esposito. At the time, Feminine Comique was a new phenomenon. I asked Cameron which students made the biggest impression. I meant it generally, like what does a student need to be successful? I didn’t expect Cameron to actually name a name, but she did. “There’s a woman named Kelsie Huff,” Cameron said, “and she’s just rockin’ it.”
I heard Kelsie’s comedy a few years later and began seeing her on TV. I met her in person one night at the kates’ show at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. She was hilarious and welcoming, and had that x-factor of authentic charisma. You can practically see her genuinely caring soul which adds an extra brightness to her presence. A few times in my life I’ve witnessed people who actually seem to emit a healing energy and Kelsie is one of them.
Kelsie kindly spoke with me by phone about comedy, television, life, and her uplifting spirit and where it began.
HOW TO LIFT UP YOUR FELLOW HUMANS
Teme: I’ve wanted to ask you about your great energy. Your spirit actually lifts up other people. If you were to bottle it, what would go into it? What’s the recipe?
Kelsie: Well, it probably starts from a sad place. I grew up in a real fun domestic violence situation where a lot of women were told that they weren’t worthy. Then put a drunk dad in the mix. Put some therapy in that mix. Then add humor as a coping mechanism along with empathy. If you are someone who experiences feeling “other” or not heard or seen, you want to feel less powerless. So I see value in giving people power. Also, really listening to people and sprinkling some comedy in that energy is helpful. Levity helps connect people. People don’t specifically think about stand-up comedy that way, but my view of stand-up is that we’re alive in this time and space together. Let’s be in it together.
I remember as a kid seeing a shaky bootleg video of Richard Pryor in a coffee shop doing one of his characters. He was so into it that he started crying. Just watching this VHS, you could feel everybody in the audience being pulled in by the empathy within his comedy.
Teme: As a kid, I would retreat and get quiet in difficult emotional situations. When did you know that you had the power to bring people together?
Kelsie: I hear you on the retreating. I was a big reader. As soon as I was able to read, I would hide away. I would read during recess. I would climb up trees and try to be away from everybody because books were better than my dumb-dumb peers.
A couple of things shifted that. Once in a parent-teacher conference, they said, “Hey, Kelsie has to be a little more social.” I had to actively work at it because I was told I had to. I also specifically remember a moment as a kid with a fight in the house. I don’t even remember what I said, but I said something that made my dad laugh and then it didn’t get bad. So I was like, “If I’m able to make them laugh and ease that tension, it might be better for everybody.” Now, is that the most healthy thing to do forever? Maybe not. Then here I am trying to make a career out of it!
Teme: If you can get people to laugh and connect on this earth, that’s a high calling!
Kelsie: I think it started as survival, but I do think it ends up becoming connective. I have friends who have taken a different path. I know comedians with similar backgrounds that are still very hurt and use comedy as a weapon, which I’m not a fan of. I don’t know if I would call them friends. I would call them “comedy peers.” Most of them are male. They grew up in an abusive situation and are using humor as power and not for connectivity. I agree with you. If you leave this place and have made it better, that’s the best any of us have.
HOW TO CONNECT
Teme: On The Jam when you’re out and about talking to people, you’re able to connect instantly. You bring out their best. How can we all be a positive influence like that?
Kelsie: I have a curiosity about how people live and what they do. You can learn a lot from other people. Steal from the world of meditation! The “beginner’s mind” and “the curious mind” are important for comedy. Like, “Well, how do you do that?” To be genuinely enthused, like, “Whoa, your whole job is making candy? That’s amazing!”
Then, really listen so it’s not about you. If you genuinely want to learn, you have to listen. I think people respond to that. Not a fake listening like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,” but really listen. Give up your space and whatever power you have. The interviews on the street are not about me. It’s about them. It’s about shining whatever energy I have on them. It makes people more comfortable. If you look at it from a managerial point of view, if they’re comfortable they can give you a better answer.
People just want to be seen. Isn’t that really what it’s all about? Everybody who wants to be famous, they really just want somebody to say, “I see what you do. Good job.”
Teme: So true. I think people want their purpose validated. To know you belong in this world.
Kelsie: I think that’s huge and everybody should feel that way, but clearly that’s not the case. So any little thing that you can do, why not? And it’s really fun. I so miss it, especially the morning stuff [on The Jam] where I could meet a stranger for two hours. You only see a five minute clip, but we’re hanging out with them most of two hours. I get to delve into their world for a while.[embedded content]
RADIO INSPIRES A DIFFERENT BANDWIDTH
Teme: I read that you came to Chicago to study radio. When did you first think about comedy as a career?
Kelsie: I didn’t really understand what radio was. When I was studying at Columbia, it was a lot of reading advertisements and stock copy and not so much the interview process. I think you get there eventually, but it seemed very corporate to me. I’d watched Good Morning, Vietnam and I thought that’s how radio was, but it turns out I just liked improv and I didn’t know it yet.
I realized that what I truly wanted was creating with other people. So I did theater, some sketch, some improv. One of the reasons I went into stand-up was to write. I really enjoy the process of language, writing, creating and having autonomy. So I went to stand-up, but then I missed the community element of improv. So how I fit into comedy was always evolving.
I really liked the female voice, which I didn’t see a lot in comedy. So then that’s why the kates came to be – because I felt lonely! I felt, “I miss this part. Let’s get female voices here.”
I have to be honest. It also evolved financially. One of the reasons I moved into television is that I was getting more jobs there. I would have loved to get jobs in comedy headlining all the time, but it just didn’t happen. You’re constantly having to pivot. Where do you connect in the community? Where do you connect financially – especially in Chicago where there’s not a booming industry like in New York or L.A.
You have to do a lot of different things. I had to do a sprinkling of on-camera stuff, some teaching, some part-time graphic design stuff, some voice-over. Really cobbling things together and being okay with that. Every experience builds your career. It took me a long time to not compartmentalize and to use all of these things to make me a whole creative person.
I don’t know if it’s a grieving process, but you’re like, oh, wait a second. Even though this is what I’ve been told that other people do, that isn’t going to work for me. I’ve got to figure this out for myself. It’s overwhelming, but freeing at the same time.
FEM COM & THE KATES: FROM STUDENT TO MENTOR
Teme: When did you decide to take Feminine Comique?
Kelsie: Cameron Esposito and Mark Geary created the class with The Lincoln Lodge. I took the class when I was still in the storytelling/sketch world. I took the class with Cameron and then I met a whole bunch of awesome other women.
Because I was doing the kates, Cameron handed Feminine Comique over to me when she went to L.A. Then I started to work with Mark and the Lodge and really grew it. I taught for about five years and then handed it off to Alex Kumin who teaches to this day. It’s still going strong.
I really loved teaching. I miss it. I love seeing people who have doubt find their own words and grow right in front of you. It’s incredible to watch.
Teme: What mindset do you need to go from being scared to confident onstage?
Kelsie: Your first moment in class is not going to be good. That’s okay. It’s not an HBO special. You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The idea is we’re all in it together. I have people write and perform the first day. We do bad jokes on purpose. Everyone has permission to be bad. Nobody dies. You stand up in front of people and you do the worst Fozzie Bear wokka wokka jokes. The whole point is to sell them. If you believe your joke and sell it with confidence, the audience will follow you.
There is power in getting the laugh. Once you start getting laughs, you’re like, “Whoa! I just made this room physically react. I want to get better at doing it.” So there’s an immediate incentive right away.
After five weeks, you’re on stage in front of people at the grad show doing your five minutes. Yes, it’s terrifying, but I’ve never seen anyone fail. The goal has always been to get women on stage. We’ll support you![embedded content]
Teme: What do you look for in kates cast members?
Kelsie: Amy Sumpter books all the Book Cellar shows. She’s holding down the fort. As far as who we like to book, if you identify as female, non-binary, or gender queer, and if you have something funny to say, you’re in.
We have a lot of newcomers. There’s an intimacy to the show at the Book Cellar. There’s no mic. There are no lights. You’re looking into everybody’s direct eyeballs. It’s not quite an open mic, it’s not a club. It’s in-between. We like when people try different things. So if you’re somebody that does stand-up, if you want to try a character or a story, just email us. If you’ve got a tape, we’ll for sure watch it. Come on in!
Teme: How did you first connect with your TV gigs? I always look forward to seeing you on Windy City Live and The Jam.
Kelsie: They used to have a stand-up segment on Windy City Live called “Sunday Night Standup.” I did a bit and I stayed in touch with folks [at the show] afterwards. I think I sent them a thank you letter, and then I was just kind of always around. I would like their social media posts. I stayed engaged. At the time, Cassie was the booker and was in comedy at Second City, so there was that connection as well.
They asked me to do “Host Chat” and I think, again, something that set me apart a little is that I can listen. I’m not there doing my [comedy] bit bulldozing through that conversation. I want to listen to Ryan and Val and the guests. They’re just very charming and delightful.
When I was there, I was talking with everybody onstage, off stage, the crew. We’re all working creatively and we can all support each other and give each other jobs. It turned out that’s exactly what happened.
David Plummer, who was a producer at Windy City Live, moved to The Jam. He got in touch with me and said, “Hey, there are some changes going on. Are you interested in being involved?” I’m like, “Of course.” I think that is the way – to be open to those opportunities, talking with people and also, helping out.
BEHIND THE SCENES AT WINDY CITY LIVE
Teme: I’m a big Windy City Live fan and I’m dying to know what it’s like to be on the show from the moment you arrive at the building to show time.
Kelsie: You get an email from the booker with the details and you’re like, “Cool.” I should probably prepare more, but I don’t. The day of, you walk in and the folks at the desk greet you. There’s usually an intern who brings you back to the greenroom. There’s the big door where the audience is and then right off to the right, there’s the greenroom door. They scooch you in there. All the guests are usually there. If there are musical guests or a big dance group, they’ll go into another section behind the scenes.
Then you have your makeup done, and they’ll touch you up during the show. I love the makeup gals. They’re the best. They’re very chatty and I just want to see them all the time. The intern gives you a packet of the topics you’ll want to talk about. Ryan or Val each have their day to choose a topic. Then they just kind of scooch you to the desk [onstage]. It’s super-fast moving. That’s the thing about live TV. Once you’re there, it’s like boom, boom, boom, boom and it’s done in a flash.
The live element is really cool with the audience responding and laughing. There are fans that go all the time, so it’s really amazing to see them. I don’t have a ton of cash, so I take the CTA. Sometimes I’ll run into the Windy City Live fans on the bus and we’ll chat. It’s great. They’re like, “Oh, hey! What are you doing here?” I’m like, “I’m going to work.” And they say, “Me too!”[embedded content]
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG (IT’S BEAUTIFUL)
Teme: What is your favorite or craziest moment from being on Windy City Live or The Jam?
Kelsie: On Windy City Live, it’s when they play the games. Once I was on with Val, Ryan, and Leon Rogers playing a game and we were just kind of running around, and Leon by the end was taking his shirt off. It was so spontaneous.
On The Jam, every second is wild. The camera person is out with just their backpack and a camera. It’s not like a big van. It’s very mobile. Sometimes you have two minutes to find people on the street to talk to and nobody’s around. It’s just adrenaline and it’s amazing. Anything can go wrong all the time and I love it. We did a President’s Day where I dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and then nobody was out on the streets. So I was just talking to myself. But it was still fun. You can plan all you want, but when it’s live, anything can happen.
When that happens, there is a camaraderie with the camera person, the producer, anyone you’re talking to and with the people watching, like, “Well, you all witnessed us messing up. Welcome to the party!”
Teme: I love television shows that allow things to go wrong and don’t put a veneer of unreality on it. It’s just honest and authentic.
Kelsie: I think that’s part of watching comedy shows, too. You’re right. When pretense goes away, you’re like, “Ooh, this is life. We’re witnessing it and it’s amazing.”
Teme: Yes. I’m much more at home with real life awkwardness. I don’t know what to do with pretense. Pretense is confusing.
Kelsie: It’s like “What game is this? Where do I put my hands?”
Teme: Exactly! I generally don’t know the rules of life, but with pretense there are a whole new set of rules and I can’t even begin to learn new rules.
Kelsie: Oh, I love it! Well, any time I mess up now, I’m going to think of you.
Teme: Thank you! Whenever I see anyone mess up, I think, “There are my brothers and sisters.” But it happens and we can get through.
Kelsie: Yup, we are not alone in our awkwardness.
LIFE IN THESE TIMES
Teme: Have there been any bright spots to this pandemic?
Kelsie: That’s a great question. I think that the pandemic has highlighted systems that have not been working for a long time; that we have plowed through and ignored for many reasons. Daily life takes over, you get distracted and focused on your own survival and don’t fully comprehend how the systems in place are not benefiting most of us. That goes for comedy, too. Institutions are being questioned and rightly so. It’s challenging and difficult, but long overdue. I think that is a silver lining.
I think creative people are rethinking their role in the world. How do you participate and thrive and help other people? I think there’s ripping and tearing. We’re shedding and becoming something new and flourishing. I think it’s painful and necessary and what we need to do to move forward.
On more of a sillier note, I’m learning how to doodle. I’m like, “I remember when I liked drawing really dumb cartoons. I forgot about that!” I think finding what really matters to you is important. Unfortunately, sometimes that gets lost as you grow up. The pandemic has helped me remember that life can be joyful. I think I always thought that, but needed a reimagining and reopening to how much more joyful it can be.
I also discovered I don’t hate gnats. I didn’t know that about myself. I’m a sweaty person and I’m still like, “They’re fine!” What else? I feel like I had a lot in my journal, but I’m not going to tell you everything.
Teme: You already uplifted me! Do you have anything in your home right now that just makes you happy to look at?
Kelsie: My whole office is like a preschool room. I definitely am stimulated by color. I’ve got this rainbow cloud pillow on my wall. I live in an apartment in Chicago, so I can’t really attach anything heavy. My walls will crumble. I’ve got a Kermit on my lamp. I’ve got rainbows everywhere. A unicorn cup holding my pen. If I am surrounded by a room looking like a candy shop, I feel good.
Teme: Yeah, that’s a good perk of adulthood. You can set up your own space like that. I love that.
Kelsie: I have paints and big pieces of brown craft paper on my wall and sometimes I’m like, “I just want to paint!” Which I didn’t do before. I feel like I’m just surrounding myself with things that make me happy.[embedded content]
Teme: What is a typical week like for you now?
Kelsie: I took a marketing contract job just because it’s been a while, since March, for comedy. I’ll wake up, I’ll make breakfast, which I never did before. I’m really taking care of myself now. I’m taking the time to eat well and to meditate. I’ll go to the bathroom, which I never seemed to have time for before.
Teme: I get that. I always put that off as long as possible. Not a good idea.
Kelsie: Not a good idea!
Teme: It seems less important than other stuff sometimes.
Kelsie: I know, right? Then I’ll get on the computer. There’s life admin stuff. For the Lincoln Lodge Training Center, I may be recruiting teachers or creating a syllabus. I do a lot of the [Lincoln Lodge’s] social media stuff. I host some virtual write-ins on YouTube. I try to write every day. Even if it’s just five or fifteen minutes or an hour, I’ll block out time for that. It’s helpful to write with people so you don’t feel alone.
Maybe three times a week I’ll go on a Zoom webinar. I like to learn. That is really stimulating to me. I don’t leave the house a ton. I go for walks and occasionally I go to the grocery store, but a lot of times I get stuff delivered. Having a structure helps me. I try to shower and make the bed every day. It helps my frame of mind. Every Saturday I have a Zoom with a couple of my friends and then we do a Sunday Zoom with my family. Same thing with the kates. I’ll get together with them so I don’t feel so alone.
Teme: What have you been reading?
Kelsie: The Chicago Public Library was the first place I went as soon as it opened. I’m reading a thriller by Ann Cleeves. I got a book from Haymarket that I’m excited to read called Race for Profit about how banks and the real estate industry undermine Black home ownership.I’m also reading How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. For my birthday, my friend got me a mystery and suspense anthology by African American writers called Black Noir. I’m real pumped to read that because I love noir and shame on me, I have never read any of these authors.
WHERE TO FIND KELSIE!
Teme: Where can people find you?
Kelsie: Comedy-wise, everything is on my website kelsiehuff.com. I am still filming vlogs, but I’m really trying to not take up as much space in the social media realm because the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. But I’m still filming and editing and learning. I’m on all the social medias. I’m not on Facebook a lot, but I’m on Instagram and Twitter.
As far as performance, when the kates do any more online, pre-recorded fundraiser shows, it will definitely be on the website as well. Or you can go to thekates.org. But yeah, that’s where everybody can find my face.
THE LINCOLN LODGE IS THERE FOR YOU
Teme: Absolutely anything else we should include?
Kelsie: We talked a little bit about the Lincoln Lodge Training Center. I know right now is a really financially stressful time for hundreds of thousands of people. The Lincoln Lodge is a nonprofit, so we understand. If you’re somebody who wants to take a class, but you can’t afford it, you can always go to the Lincoln Lodge and send us a contact. We want people to be able to find their creative voices regardless of finance, so we’ll figure out a payment plan. If you’re feeling like you want to try comedy, but you don’t have the finances, still reach out. We’ll figure something out.[embedded content]
Kelsie hosts a live write-in with author Jennifer Ann Coffeen here.
News about the kates here.