'Baskets' Actor Martha Kelly Is Better Than OK (But She'd Never Admit It)

The delightfully deadpan star talks anxiety, acting, and 'Alvin and the Chipmunks.'
March 28, 2017, 8:18pm
Photo by Katie Pengra

It's 8PM on a Tuesday night and Martha Kelly is about to go onstage. "I wish I dressed better," she says in her distinctive monotone. "I wish I had better fashion sense and had been working out for the past six months."

"For this show specifically?" I ask. "Yeah," she laughs. "I'm looking forward to your set," I tell her. "It'll be awful," she mutters.

It's 9PM on a Wednesday night and Martha Kelly is about to go onstage. "I don't like my jokes," she says in her distinctive monotone. "Maybe if I dressed better. Goddamnit. Shit." "You were great last night," I tell her. "I was OK," she shrugs.

Martha does not abide compliments well. Which is unfortunate, since she's been receiving quite a few of them of late due to her standout performance as insurance saleswoman Martha Brooks in Baskets, FX's Bakersfield-based tragicomedy which was recently picked up for a third season.

Baskets is her first acting gig, the result of a cold call from the show's co-creator and star Zach Galifianakis, who she met doing open mics in the late 90s. The two were never especially close; they hadn't spoken in over a year when he asked her to, without auditioning, take on the role of Martha. "I feel almost like I owe Zach my life," she says. "I definitely owe him every single thing that's been going on work-wise, because I wasn't even doing stand-up when he called me. I was really depressed, eating a lot of potato chips and cookies and watching a lot of Law & Order. SVU." She's since returned to stand-up; her Comedy Central Half Hour aired late last year.

Her deadpan delivery on Baskets is drier than an unsalted saltine, making her the perfect comic foil for Galifianakis's broad strokes as Chip, a classically trained clown stuck doing rodeo work and his twin brother, Dale, the fedora-wearing owner of a fly-by-night career college. Her performance on the show has led to other gigs, most notably a small role in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming ("in which I look absolutely terrible and will probably be entirely cut out of, which would be OK because they made me look really butch. They wouldn't let me wear lipstick. It's really stupid to care, but I did."). Despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, she insists she is awful at acting.

"I have no idea how to do it," she proclaims, "and whether it's any good. Even if someone says they liked it. With Baskets, sometimes people say they really like it and I think, 'Maybe I'm not terrible,' but then I watch it and I'm like, 'No, I'm right. I really am terrible.'"

"Why do you think you're terrible at acting?" I ask. "I'm just really stiff and talk in a monotone and have a very tiny range emotionally," she replies. "But some human beings are like that," I counter. "This human being is like that," she laughs.

The primary emotion Martha experiences in her day-to-day life is silent fear. An anxious sort, a stick of gum is perpetually lodged in her mouth; as soon she spits one out, another takes its place. Sitting in the green room awaiting her set at Los Angeles's Nerdmelt Showroom, she swings her feet and wrings her hands.

"How do you deal with anxiety?" I ask. "I feel like shit until it passes," she replies. While waiting for the shit to pass, she often bides her time watching Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, as she finds comfort in their altered version of reality. In the Alvin universe, "there are good guys and bad guys," she explains, "but no one is ever in real jeopardy. In the real world, I don't even feel safe in this green room."

She separates a lot of things, up to and including the minutiae of the real world, into the categories of good and bad. There are a lot of good things on Earth, she says, but a lot of bad things beyond our control. Take, for example, the presidency of Donald Trump. Scrolling Twitter, she feels powerless; she wonders when, if ever, we will collectively agree he has gone too far. The fact that there's no end in sight compounds her anxiety. There are good parts to existence, sure, but not enough to make her "desperately cling to life."

"Hell is a fairy tale," she says. "What we really have to fear is reincarnation."

She is, as I type this, moving back to Austin, driving with her dog and cat in tow. It's the third time she's done so. She's originally from Southern California (specifically, and "sadly," Torrance) but prefers Austin, which she's called home off and on since 2000. "When you get out of a show in Austin," she explains, "you can smell the grass and asphalt. In LA, you smell nothing and cigarette smoke."

"There's a lot of really great people here," she says of Los Angeles, "but this city can go to hell."

"I'm so sick of my material," she sighs while staring at her setlist, which is written on a tattered piece of Holiday Inn stationary. "I shouldn't have had that nap." She had taken a "group nap" with her pets earlier in the day and woke up disoriented at dusk. "Do you need a Coke?" I ask her. "I'd rather ruin the audience's night," she laughs.

"If this doesn't go well," she tells the crowd before her final joke, "it's not entirely your fault." It goes well.

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