I met Betsy when she was eight months pregnant and teaching an improv class I was taking at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NYC. Like me, Betsy was married to a fellow improviser. I’m not religious, but I think this must be like meeting someone and finding out that they worship the same god you do. Insta-kinship.
We became Facebook friends and soon, the number of things we had in common grew: We were both outspoken improvisers who were married to improvisers; we were both moms; we both lived in gentrified Brooklyn; and we both had vaginas. Amazing!
But seriously, I felt a connection to Betsy that was disproportionate to the limited amount of time we’d actually spent together in person. So when I was thinking of people I wanted the excuse to get to know better under the guise of “May I interview you for you my blog?”… her name rose to the top of the list.
Read on for an edited transcript of our wide-ranging conversation, in which we discuss:
- Being mentored by Amy Poehler
- The death of Home Economics
- Improvising marriage (and why parenthood makes it hard to say “yes, and”)
- Creating order out of chaos, establishing boundaries, and more
And Now, On to the Interview!
Amanda: What’s your typical day like? Do you have a typical day?
Betsy: My days are a little crazy, not super typical. Lately the kids wake us up around, let’s say 7ish. Oftentimes my husband Ari will let me sleep in a little longer, which is amazing. He’ll go down with the kids — lately, it’s terrible to admit, he’ll turn on the TV, and then he’ll doze on the couch. Sometimes he’ll make coffee. At some point he’ll wake me up, and we’ll all go downstairs... and “all” is my husband, and me, and my sister Lydia, who lives with us… my son Rex, who’s 4, and my son Ajax, who’s 3. And then I’ll make breakfast.
My sister will help get the boys ready for school, then either she’ll take them to school and drop my husband at work, or I’ll take them, and then I can get started on work. Sometimes that’s taping a voice over in my closet at home, sometimes it’s getting the house cleaned up for the day, and then maybe going to an audition or a meeting.
It’s been strange, a little different, because my youngest son has started going to school — lately, it’s been really nice, I can just work and get done whatever I need to do. And my sister helps with the house and stuff, goes grocery shopping, and then I’m able to go teach an improv class. And then I’ll come home, and then there’s about half an hour, and then the kids’ll come home, and I’ll make dinner.
Then my husband comes home from his daytime job, and we’ll have dinner as a family – at this point my sister usually goes out and has fun. And then I put my kids to bed…and my husband actually, before that, goes back to work to teach a class at night.
Amanda: Wow, so as a fellow parent listening to you, I’m thinking, having your sister in the mix is a life changer.
Betsy: Huge. I’m pretty sure my husband will never let her leave our house.
Amanda: I wouldn’t! Make sure you stock up on all her favorite treats…
Betsy: Beer, tequila…
Amanda: Just make it really compelling. As she changes in her life stage, you’ll just need to adjust the incentives you provide, but I’m sure you guys can be resourceful and keep a good thing going.
So, changing gears: I wanted to ask you, I was reading your Twitter bio, and it says you have a "system for everything." And I’m really curious to ask you about this, because a recent tweet of yours said you went through this project of organizing tacks and nails… And I know, in the past, every once in a while, you post pictures on Facebook of curtains or pillows you’ve sewn, that are really beautiful. So I’m wondering, when you say you have a system for everything… are you a domestic goddess?
Betsy: I wish! As I get older, I have a growing respect for what you’d historically call “women’s work.” There’s a lot to be said for keeping a home, knowing how to do that well and beautifully, in a way that saves money, and with grace. I don’t feel like I do that! But I’m in awe of people who do.
I have a lot of respect for women over the ages who could cook for their families without a cookbook, three meals a day, and do it without fucking complaining all the time — I know I complain all the time — making their entire families clothes to wear and keeping them looking nice.
I think we’ve all fallen out of step with that. We can buy clothes, we can buy pre-made food, we have babysitters and daycare, and it’s all good for women, but in some ways we owe women of the past a lot of respect and a lot of props for that sort of stuff, and we don’t give it to them.
Anyway, am I a domestic goddess? No, but I do really like crafty stuff. I like sewing. I’m a very practical person and I was raised in a way — if you want something right, do it yourself, and if you’re not finding what you want, then do it yourself and make it how you want it. I’m real persnickety I guess. I have a lot of systems…and if I see something that’s not how I like it, I like to fix it up.
Of course, I'm saying this as I sit in my bedroom that has no less than five surfaces just COVERED in junk. It's...a work in progress. But the term "a place for everything and everything in its place" gives me a real boner. I love making order out of chaos.
With two kids, even with my sister living here, I’m like the ship captain in a lot of ways, or stage manager, of our life. If I don’t point out what needs to be done or do it, it just sits there.
Amanda: It’s so interesting, listening to you talk about “women’s work,” it reminds me of this book I’m reading called Kitchen Counter Cooking School. It’s about this trained chef, trained at Le Cordon Bleu, who has this epiphany in a grocery store, watching this woman and her daughter shopping. She has this aha moment that there’s this literacy that’s missing about how to make smarter shopping decisions, and it’s not about fine dining, or even just improving health, but saving money. She ends up teaching a free class to women in Seattle on how to use knives, how to roast a chicken, because it’s cheaper than buying chicken breasts… It’s Home Ec. I didn’t need to know how to sew a pillow in 7th grade, but now, it’s this fundamental literacy that we’re never taught, and we end up wasting time and money and food as a result. We’re never taught that basic stuff.
Betsy: I agree with you one hundred percent, and I want to preface this by saying I’m a big ol’ feminist…
Amanda: Right, well, men can learn it too…
Betsy: Right. Somewhere along the line we decided we didn’t want to force women into this box, and we stopped teaching Home Ec, but a lot of us weren’t learning it at home…it just wasn’t considered important. Instead of feeling like “this isn’t feminist, we shouldn’t learn it,” we should all learn it. We should all know how to budget, how to sew a pillow, how to make chicken broth. It’s important. I think it has a lot to do with why our country has no idea how to eat or budget. Someone’s gotta know how to do it, and NO ONE knows…
Amanda: It’s true, and just to underscore, you and I are both feminists, and I don’t think either of us is saying women need to learn this more than men… it’s just that a person needs to know this before going out in the world. And then you can be mindful, and make purposeful decisions…if you want to buy the pre-made chicken broth, because you’re busy and it’s worth it to you to spend the extra few bucks, at least you’re aware that one might make one’s own chicken broth! It’s just about making an informed decision.
It’s interesting, too — listening to you, it made me think how there are two trends in our culture right now: one being this movement towards DIY, and the whole Etsy culture, and let’s all make homemade… and then at the same time, continuing a convenience culture: I want to buy my salad in a bag, I want TV on demand. It’s just interesting, there are these two threads pulling: on the one hand, impatience, and I want shortcuts, and convenience…and maybe among different people, this sort of back to the land, DIY…
Betsy: You’re totally right.
Amanda: Well that got heady.
Betsy: When I had kids, it was a real discovery, of, “Oh gosh, someone in my house has to know how to do this stuff…” And I can only speak for my own marriage — my husband doesn’t have that kind of attention to detail. So it’s like, “Oh, I guess I’ve gotta figure it out.”
Amanda: Jordan and I attend to very different kinds of details. If there’s paperwork involved, he’s got the patience to fill out forms, and I’d rather jump off a bridge.
Betsy: That’s how we are.
Amanda: We’re dwelling on home economics, but it’s really a life principle. I have this business partner and we do these workshops where we teach women how to market themselves, and we talk about how marketing — if you’re a small business owner, an artist, a freelancer – marketing is form of literacy. You need to learn enough to decide whether to do it yourself, or outsource.
And it’s the same thing with a car. Growing up — and these days, you probably don’t, but growing up, you take an auto repair class, you learn the basics of how the engine works. And then as you grow up, then — if you have the luxury, we should say — if you make a certain amount of money, you decide, “Would I rather have the money in my pocket and I fix the car myself, or would I rather go to mechanic?”…It’s the same thing with taxes…would I rather have the money in my pocket, and do my taxes myself?
It’s empowering across the board, in any aspect of your life, to at least have a basic literacy, and then…most of us, we get to be busy as adults, and if you make a certain amount of money, you can decide you’re not going to do literally all of it yourself…but then at least you’re being mindful.
And just going back to the chicken broth example, if you just want to buy chicken broth, because it does not interest you, with everything else on your plate, to make it yourself…fine! It’s just people who don’t even know you could make it yourself, or fix your car, that that’s a thing a person could do…
Betsy: I think you put that really well, and it occurs to me that over time, as a country, maybe lazily, we’ve outsourced all of it. We don’t know how to do much these days.
Amanda: So I want to talk about your work. Tell me what you’re working on right now, creatively, and what you’re working toward.
Betsy: Let’s see. As you know, I teach improv comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB). I’ve been teaching there for 14 years. I teach 4 classes a week, and try my best to mentor students, and female students, and I’m part of a – I’ll call it a movement, called Uplifting Comedy Broads. We did an event in June, essentially just a networking event, to put it dryly, for women in comedy, so they can meet each other face to face, make connections, promote their shit…
It’s important to me that women know how to network, because it is a skill, it’s important that they know how to, and that it’s ok to just shamelessly promote their shit. I think that’s really important. I think a lot of times women are discouraged from doing that. So that’s that. We’re working on putting together a new event for the fall.
On top of that, I just did a voiceover in a movie. I did the voice of a monkey. I’m pretty much living my dream. It was so silly and so much fun.
Amanda: This comes back to the whole DIY theme — you made a DIY home recording studio, didn’t you?
Betsy: I did. I do all my auditions in my closet. I got a bunch of egg crate mattresses and put them on a wall, and a pop filter. I use my iPhone as my microphone. I think it sounds pretty good — I don’t get any complaints.
Amanda: Well, it sounds like you’re getting work, and I know you well enough to know you have high standards; I know you wouldn’t send things out if they weren’t good.
Betsy: I try not to, but you know, when you have kids, sometimes, you have to say, “It’s good enough, oh well…”
Amanda: That’s a good lesson that motherhood teaches you, which is true whether you’re a parent or not: You just need to do your best and move on.
Betsy: Yeah, that’s true, even if you’re a real type-A personality…that’s something that motherhood forces you to learn.
Amanda: So, you were saying, you’re teaching classes, you’re doing voiceover work…and you and Ari have a show you do?
Betsy: Yeah, we have a bi-weekly show called Teacher’s Lounge at UCB Sunset, and it’s a rotating cast of UCB teachers, super fun. And then lastly I’m working on a new project; it’s just developing, a sitcom idea I have.
Amanda: I would love to see a sitcom from the perspective and voice of Betsy Stover.
Amanda: No, I mean it! I’m very sincere. We need more women’s voices.
Betsy: For real. With that women’s networking group I mentioned, one thing we’re working on is helping women develop an elevator pitch. A lot of us do so many things; when someone says, “What do you do?,” it’s almost impossible to succinctly tell someone. We’re talking about how we can help people confidently say, “I’m an actress and I have a blog, “and to promote what they’re doing, confidently. I know I struggle with saying what the hell I do when people ask.
Amanda: To some extent, it’s just owning it and having confidence. It’s ok to say “I’m this and that,” and you don’t have to laugh it away, or be embarrassed …own it. You’re not the only one. And also part of it — this is the marketer in me, but it’s just about knowing your audience. If your dentist asks how you are, you give a different answer than if best friend asks. It’s the same thing. What context are you in when someone asks what you do.
So, I want to ask you: One of the things we have in common — and talking to you, we have more in common than I knew! — we are both married to fellow improvisers. Can you talk about how you see that playing out in your relationship? I feel like I remember you talking about how you guys talk about “yes, and.”
Betsy: We do really try to “yes and” each other — it sounds dorky, but we’ll literally say things like “I feel like you’re not yes-and-ing me,” or, “I’m trying to yes-and you here.” So yeah, we do really apply a lot of rules of improv to our relationship and our parenting. Which is to say that we try to always have each other’s back, we try to always treat each other like a genius and give each other the benefit of the doubt, assume the other person has a good idea, and that we’re playing on the same team.
I think with marriage it’s easy to lose sight of that. Sometimes it feels like you’re not playing on the same team, especially with parenthood…it can get real crazy.
Amanda: Not to over-share, but Jordan and I were together a million years before we had kids, and we thought we knew everything there was to know about each other. And becoming parents together, even parents with very similar values, we find a lot of times that in the moment, we have different instincts. And backing each other up in the moment, but also being true to yourself, it’s hard, when it’s about your kid. You’re like, “I’m thinking we should say yes to her here, and you’re saying no, and I want to do what I’m feeling as a parent is right, but I also want to be on your team, and treat you like a genius and have your back…” Parenting stretches that, challenges that, unlike anything else.
Betsy: Oh yeah, big time. We never used to bicker. We don’t fight, but we bicker now, in a way that we never did before we had kids.
Amanda: Yep. Same.
Betsy: It’s so bizarre, it’s like, “Who are these people? Who are we?”
Amanda: And then you come back together, and you go, “Right, we’re on the same team, ‘yes, and,’” and you have that vocabulary… I sense you are very happily married. You and Ari are great friends, and so are we, but it does — those tensions, those moments, that were never there before.
Betsy: Yeah, like all of a sudden you’re seething, like, “Go get the water cup”…”WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DIDN’T PACK A SNACK!?!” But yeah, I do think being married to an improviser is a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Amanda: The last thing I want to ask you, because I think you’re a role model for a lot of your students, so I wonder: Who are your role models?
Betsy: Well, the easy and most obvious answer is Amy Poehler. The first time I saw her perform on stage and met her was when I was 19 years old, and it made a huge impact. It was one of the very first times I had seen a woman on stage just own the stage and be as funny or funnier than the men she was on stage with. At 19, coming from Minneapolis, that was a very rare thing for me to see…
And she was, for a long time, a real mentor, in a career sense, but also in a personal sense, that I could talk to and ask questions. And even though we’re not as close now, I’ve always looked to her for guidance in a lot of ways. And she’s a real champion for women and girls and for being bossy and assertive and I think there’s a lot that we can all learn from looking at Amy Poehler.
Amanda: If we were in a beatnik café, I’d be snapping my agreement with you right now. I don’t know her personally, but I admire her very deeply, as well.
Betsy: I like that she’s not embarrassed to say what she feels, and she says a lot of important things that a lot of women need to hear, and things that women need to be unembarrassed to say, like “I’m a feminist.” Or if something’s wrong, she calls it out with humor and grace, and I think she’s just the bee’s knees.
Amanda: Actually, I have a funny story — I did meet her once. I was backstage at the Del Close Marathon, and had just gone to the bathroom, and came out, and there she was. I said hello…she and the original UCB four had just done a show, and I had felt so bad, because the dynamic of the show was them playfully, but also aggressively, razzing her the whole time for being “the famous one.”
And they never actually did improv — maybe they eventually did a scene — and then they were like “Famous Amy will take questions from the audience.” And someone asked, “What does Will Arnett’s dick taste like?,” and I just wanted to kill everybody. And she just had such poise.
So there I am, 20 minutes later, in the green room, coming out of the bathroom, and I was like, “It’s such an honor to meet you,” and she said, “It’s an honor to meet you,” and I said, “I’m so sorry that everybody was giving you such a hard time on stage, and that you couldn’t just improvise.”
And she looked at me and I felt like I saw this moment of just like, “I’m not going to have an intimate moment with you, woman I just met in the green room.” And also, it was super presumptuous of me — I don’t know what her dynamic is with those guys. Maybe she thought it was just fine.
But she just went completely changed the subject, and was like, “What brings you here?,” and I told her I was performing with this all female group I was in from DC, and she seemed so genuinely enthusiastic about that. And I said, “I’ll let you go, it was so nice to meet you.”
I’ve always looked back, and I don’t know if it was just human of me to say that, or super presumptuous…and just the way she handled it, shifting the focus back to me…anyway, I just felt like sharing that with you.
Betsy: That’s awesome. And I think one of her strengths is that she has boundaries, and she makes her boundaries clear. And I think as women, and especially women in comedy, sometimes we’re all a little loosey-goosey about our boundaries.
Amanda: That’s a really good observation.
Betsy: Maybe that was just her asserting her boundaries. That’s one thing I’ve observed with this Uplifting Comedy Broads thing; I think a lot of women in comedy, some things that draw us into comedy are also what make it difficult sometimes for us to draw boundaries. I think you know what I mean.
Amanda: I do, especially when you go into improv of all things, or all art, all performance, improv especially, or any kind of art, it’s about opening yourself, and then to assert a boundary is to close that off… and so I guess it’s about maturing, and knowing when to open, and when to actually protect yourself and be closed.
Betsy: Absolutely. Also, in terms of role models, I have to say that I look up to Martha Stewart very much. She is a smart businesswoman, and she has managed to stay relevant for three decades. She's aggressive; composes herself outwardly with coolness, beauty, and grace; gets her way; and doesn't take shit from ANYONE. I love Martha Stewart.
Amanda: Cool. Well, I guess on that note, I’m going to let you go, because I’ve gone over our time…but I so enjoyed talking to you…very, very sincerely, I could have talked longer.
Betsy: All of that is so mutual — thank you, Amanda.
Get a glimpse of Betsy’s talent in this spoof of House Hunters, also starring her husband, Ari Voukydis:
You can follow Betsy on Twitter at @betsystover and see her perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in LA on Sunset. Also, here is a recipe for homemade chicken broth from Martha Stewart.