“I wasn’t the funniest person in the room or anything like that,” says comedian Fortune Feimster of her childhood in Belmont, N.C. “I would tell jokes that I heard to friends and I’d watch Saturday Night Live a lot and mimic the sketches in school the following Monday, so comedy was a part of my life.”
She would also watch reruns of the old The Carol Burnett Show with her grandmother. “I loved when they would crack each other up and she would do these outrageous characters,” she says. However, apart from entertaining her classmates, she wasn’t doing any performing to speak of.
“I was kind of taking it all in, like a sponge,” she says. “So when I got older, I had this comedic desire inside me and I didn’t even know it was there. When I started performing comedy, it began as a hobby and just kind of came naturally to me.”
Feimster started in sketch, eventually joining the famous Groundlings in Los Angeles. “I started doing sketch comedy because that was a world I was more familiar with,” she says. “To me, stand-up seemed very scary. I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do that.’ But a friend of mine, who is a stand-up, came to one of my sketch shows and she said, ‘You’re a stand-up. You’re a storyteller. Try it.’ ”
After taking a stand-up class at L.A.’s The Comedy Store, Feimster performed in the graduation show, but only invited one friend. “Once I got onstage to perform, it just fit like a glove. It was like one of those things where you can’t believe you haven’t been doing it your whole life,” she says.
It wasn’t that she had stopped enjoying sketch.
“It was different,” Feimster says. “I love them both for different reasons. I just find stand-up fits a little bit better for me. With sketch I really have to sit down and labor over ideas and characters. It takes a little more time. Whereas [with] stand-up I can just get up there and, while I have my set routine, I can also just talk.” Her comfort onstage along with her easy-going manner soon gained the attention of comedy audiences across the country.
Feimster’s big break came when she appeared as a semi-finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2010, which she almost didn’t do. Under the show’s original format, a group of comics had to live together and participate in all sorts of silly challenges. “I’m not living in a house with comedians,” she told them. “I’m not doing challenges.” But when she found out it was straight up stand-up, she was onboard.
She did well enough to boost her profile and become a headlining comedian. That led to a job on Chelsea Lately as a writer and roundtable regular. Recently, host Chelsea Handler announced that the program would be ending its run later this summer. Feimster had stepped down from her writing post on the show back in January, but still makes regular appearances on the panel.
“I left the show originally to pursue acting,” she says. “For me it was time to start focusing on that part of my career again.” Her focus has paid off, as she recently shot a pilot for Tina Fey’s company called Cabot College, which is currently under review by Fox. “That was fun,” she says. “A fun character to play, and hopefully that will get picked up and I’ll be doing that for a while.”
Still, she’s going to miss Chelsea Lately. “I’m going to miss doing the roundtable. I’ve been part of the show for three-and-a-half years and everybody there is like family. For that not to exist anymore doesn’t seem right,” she says.
Family has always been important to Feimster, and has been a strong influence on her comedy career. “I tell a lot of stories from my own life and my childhood,” she says. “I talk about my mom, who is quite a character. I talk a little bit about coming out of the closet and what that was like and silly stuff that happened to my friends.”
It’s mom, though, who is a constant source of material. “She calls me with crazy information about silly things some family member has done. I feel like a lot of people have a mom like that and it’s nice to celebrate that and laugh about it together.”
Lately, mom has figured some things out. “She used to call me with horrible news and go on and on about her day,” Feimster says. “She caught on that I was using that as material in my shows. She quit doing that, but she still tries to sneak her neurosis in there.”
FORTUNE FEIMSTER performs Saturday at the Aronoff Center (650 Walnut St., Downtown). Tickets and more info: 513-621-2787 or cincinnatiarts.org.