In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor and stand-up comedian Martha Kelly, who just kicked off the third season of FX's Baskets. (You've also seen her in Spider-Man: Homecoming and American Gods.)
I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles. It was close to the beach and I didn’t really like it very much. I have very pale skin and I’m not a great swimmer. The only time I’ve liked the beach was on the Florida Gulf Coast. That was fun because the waves are really small. Where I grew up, waves could knock you down. I’m not coordinated. I never wanted to try surfing.
My first job was at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that was in high school. I don’t really remember exactly how long it was but I did not enjoy it. Eventually I got an older person who worked there to buy me a bottle of vodka. I kept it at work and would mix it with orange soda in order to not hate being at work. But now I’m sober. I think a lot of people hate working in fast food but not everybody orders a bottle of vodka, so I’m not blaming Kentucky Fried Chicken for that.
My first full-time job was in the library of Mount St. Mary’s college and that was after I left school and moved back to LA. I didn’t finish school—I’m still two classes away from a Bachelor’s degree in English. That’s not a huge money-making career choice but I took it because it was easy. I eventually got tired of it and also I was dealing with clinical depression and not getting treatment for it, so I didn’t realize how much that was affecting me. I went back to school for one quarter in 2013 as a middle-aged person. It was a lot more fun. I might take those last two classes at some point.
My senior year of high school, I was in drama, in a musical comedy play. It was the only thing I really enjoyed in high school. When I was in college and I was really depressed, I tried to think, What would I want to do if I could do anything? What would be something I would actually enjoy? and I remembered that experience. Initially I wanted to be an actor. Then I went to one day of acting class in community college and was way too self-conscious and inhibited to actually do all the stuff that actors do in training. That’s how I ended up with stand-up comedy: you are the one who decides what you’re going to do, what you’re going to talk about, how you’re going to look, and how you’re going to act on stage. Also, Roseanne Barr and Joan Rivers—especially Roseanne Barr—were very different female stand-ups than what I had seen when I was younger. I saw Janeane Garofalo in the 90s and thought—and still think—she’s amazing.
When Zach [Galifianakis] called me about Baskets in January 2014, it was totally out of the blue. We kept in touch over the years but didn’t keep it constant. It’s not like we hung out a lot. A lot of the time leading up to and after The Hangover, I was living in Texas, so maybe once a year we would talk on the phone. He said he was going to do a pilot and wanted to know if I wanted to play his… at first it was going to be a personal assistant to a down-and-out rodeo clown in Bakersfield. I said, I can’t. I’m not an actor. I can’t act. Years before, I had for a voiceover part on a TV show, and I was just horrible at it. I was so nervous.
Zach said, “Just say the lines like you would in real life. You can just act like yourself. You don’t have to be a professional actor.” I still didn’t think I could do it. At the time, I was living with my parents and my job was editing documents for an online company, like a professional proofreader. Mostly college papers for people where English was a second language. A lot of it was science and technical stuff, which was boring and didn’t pay great. But I was living with my parents, and I felt like it might be my only hope to ever move out.
That’s why I did it, really. I thought I would be terrible and probably get fired, but I had to try or else I didn’t know how I would get out of the situation I was in. When we actually started doing it, from the time we started the pilot to now, it’s been one of the sweetest, happiest, most fun experiences of my whole life. The crew and the cast and the director—it’s a really great group of people. It’s like going to summer camp every year.
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Baskets airs Tuesdays at 10 PM ET/PT on FX.