WE ALL LOVE TO TELL STORIES. Whether they be about the ventures of our day or specific moments in life, we sort of thrive on telling people our tales of success, passion, and even woe. But for Margot Leitman, storytelling is a profession. Beginning her onstage career as a comedian, Leitman has now dropped the jokes and shifted into the realm of comedic storytelling, an art form that has allowed her to bring out more of herself on stage. Her debut book, “Gawky: Tales of an Extra Long Awkward Phase,” tells the relatable story of the awkward years of life — which arguably might or might not go away. But as Leitman sees it, maybe that isn’t so bad. Maybe we all need to celebrate being an outcast. Maybe we do need to celebrate the weirdos.
Leitman talks to TSJ about writing a book, doing stand up, and her obsession with game shows.
The Smoking Jacket: You do so much: Acting, teaching, writing, and performing. If somebody asks what you do, what do you say?
Margot Leitman: If I’m trying to get on a game show I say I’m a teacher. I say I’m an art educator because I want to be a regular person. [laughs] But in the real world I say I’m a writer.
TSJ: Was that the goal when you first started?
ML: No, no. I went to college for theater and dance. I think my initial goal was to be an actor. That eventually worked its way into being a comedian. And from doing comedy I kind of started getting a lot of writing work. It all morphed together. But the initial goal was to be an actor.
“THE PRICE IS RIGHT”
TSJ: Now you do a lot of comedic storytelling. How did you get from stand up to that?
ML: I did a lot of stand up and eventually fell out of love with it. I really don’t know how to explain it. I started to not want to go to my shows. In comedy you’re lucky to get stage time, and I was. But at the same time I was trying to find ways to get out of it because I was falling out of love with it. It’s almost like a relationship to a degree where you know you need to get out. Eventually I just said, “It’s not working.”
During my stand up I would tell stories. And I started waning off the stand up and incorporating more stories. It was really hard for me because I spent a lot of time doing stand up.
“Every time I do television I love craft services. I love it.”
TSJ: But the stories that you tell now are often comedic.
ML: Oh, yeah! They all are. Even if they’re about the worst thing in the world I try and find something funny in there.
TSJ: With what you do and somebody like Marc Maron – who is a comic who does long-form stories – do you think there’s a difference?
ML: I don’t think there is one. If he considers himself a comedian but his material has a storytelling-nature, I don’t think there is a difference. Guys like Richard Pryor — he was an amazing storyteller. I know he’s considered a comic but he was a great storyteller.
TSJ: Is the art of storytelling at all like comedy in that you need to hone the craft for years before figuring out a particular style?
ML: Like stand up, I think there are people who are naturally good at it. And there are also people who, with practice, get better. I know this from teaching. I’ve had students who walk into my UCB Storytelling class having never done storytelling, and immediately realize they have something. And then I have people who walk in and are a hot mess but after the eight weeks they’re brilliant.
I always say I don’t think you can teach someone to be funny. I think you can teach someone how to structure a story properly, but I don’t believe you can teach someone to be funny.
TSJ: That makes sense. You need to get your personality into a story, I would imagine. At least, that’s what I’ve garnered from watching you perform.
ML: I think the funny thing with stories come with how you react to them. I have a story about when I was going through a health problem and went to Whole Foods. It was right after what happened in Haiti, and at the register they asked if I wanted to make a donation. I had just come from the doctor and they had no medical explanation as to what was wrong with me. So the woman at the register asked if I wanted to donate, I said yes. She asked how much, and I responded fifty dollars. She said, “Wow, you’re a nice person!” I started weeping and said, “I am a nice person,” just crying. [laughs]
So my point is that the reaction is funny as opposed to the story. Meanwhile, everything else happening isn’t funny. I’m just handling it in a ridiculous manner. So I think our reactions tend to be funnier than events.
TSJ: You have a UCB show, “Stripped Stories.” Can you tell me about it?
ML: Yeah! “Stripped Stories” is a storytelling show where all of the stories have some underlying theme about sex. It can be about love, sex, dating, relationships, etc. There just has to be some element of that. Myself and Giulia Rozzi have been doing it since January 2007. We’re on different coasts now so we’re not doing it as much as we were but we are doing it periodically. We’ve done it all over the country with a lot of great guests.
TSJ: I was going to mention the guests. It’s really turned into something big.
ML: Oh, yeah! Wonderful guests. Nick Kroll has done it. Reggie Watts. What’s so fun about it is that people soon realize they can tell a story about anything having to do with sex; they can do so much. Something as simple as an unrequited crush, people can tell a story about that. And it’s not really just dirty stuff either. I think people get the wrong idea, because our show can be really heartfelt.
TSJ: Can anyone show up to perform?
ML: No, we do book the guests. However, every show we do pull somebody out of the audience. We do an interview with them, so at every show there is someone from the audience involved.
TSJ: And are all of the stories real?
ML: Yep, they’re all true!
TSJ: So the story with the phone dating line?
ML: Oh, yeah! That’s true. [laughs] Actually, it’s funny you bring that one up. The other girl who was involved in it – I called her Amanda – she contacted me and said, “I think I’m Amanda.” She loved it. It’s great that it’s finally got back to someone that was involved, and that she remembered it exactly as I did.
“THE PHONE DATING LINE”
TSJ: So can you tell me a little bit about your book, “Gawky: Tales of an Extra Long Awkward Phase?”
ML: Yeah! The book is a bunch of true stories about my very, very long and awkward phase. It starts when I have this growth spurt in the fourth grade and shot up to 5’6”, which kind of sets the bar for what my childhood was going to be like. I’d like to say that it ends with me getting out of my awkward stage, but I don’t know that I truly have. [laughs]
It’s basically a collection of stories that really celebrate the outcasts of the world. I felt like a social outcast in a lot of ways growing up so this is sort of a celebration of the weirdos. It shows people that you can come through it all laughing. People will hopefully feel better about their childhood pain and such. I hope others connect with it.
TSJ: I think it’s hard when you are going through that to realize it gets better.
ML: Oh, yeah. Remember that campaign? I wish that was around then. I had no idea. [laughs] I was like, I guess this is my life. But it gets so much better.
TSJ: This is your first book. How did you like the experience of writing a book as opposed to your stories? You’re not writing to perform.
ML: It was on a totally different level. I had to take some memoir writing classes. I found it to be a really big challenge. For me, writing a story for stage is automatic, and somewhat simple. This was so much different.
TSJ: What are some of the differences in writing for the stage and the book?
ML: Well, height is a big thing in my book. If I walk onstage you can see how tall I am. You can see the heels I’m wearing. All of that has to be written because the readers don’t see me. It was interesting that all of the things that are presented in front of an audience’s eye had to be changed to words. I look like this… I am wearing this…
TSJ: Did you find the process hard?
ML: Definitely. But I think a deadline helps with that. If you’re writing a book for no one, on spec, it’s harder. But if you sell the book, have a deadline and won’t get the money until you hand it in, you’ll write the book. [laughs] But if you’re just writing it and just hoping it sells, it’s very hard.
TSJ: I know you’re a big game show enthusiast. You’ve been on “The Price Is Right” and “Let’s Make A Deal.” Are you still obsessed?
ML: I have to tell you, I’ve been getting so into “Wheel of Fortune” lately, and I think I can do it. I think I’m allowed to be on another show again because it’s been a few years since I was last on.
TSJ: They make you wait? I did not know that.
ML: Yeah, it’s odd. It’s like being a commercial actor. If you’re in a McDonald’s commercial you can’t be in an Arby’s one for a while or something.
TSJ: Wasn’t your mother on a game show too?
ML: She was! In 1978, she was on “Pyramid” with hottie Robert Urich. So this is a very serious thing with my family. And I was on “Let’s Make A Deal” with my husband so he’s now caught the bug.
TSJ: So of all the things you’ve done – performing, writing, etc. – what have you enjoyed the most?
ML: Well, I’ll say this. Every time I do television I love craft services. I love it. But now that I’ve sold two scripts and did a movie I’ve found that I just love going to a set of a movie that I’ve written, not having to worry about lines, and getting to eat craft services. [laughs]
I’m kidding; I’ve come to realize that I just love sets. I love going to them either as a writer or performer. It’s a lot of fun. I love watching these art forms being made. There’s a sense of community to a set that I really love.