A comedian, almost by definition, has had to overcome hurdles. “You wouldn’t become a comedian if you didn’t,” said Rachael O’Brien, a stand-up comic from Los Angeles, invoking the pain-plus-time-equals-comedy formula that governs her profession.
O’Brien, 33, who graduated from Warrenton High School in 2003, performs Sunday, Nov. 4, at Portland’s Curious Comedy Theater and took a moment to chat with Coast Weekend.
After her monologue, O’Brien and her friend, Sabrina Danzl — a fellow WHS grad who often goes on the road with her — will cohost a live episode of O’Brien’s podcast, “Be Here For a While.” Some VIP ticket holders will have a chance to join them onstage.
Though she studied political science at the University of Oregon, graduating in three years before moving to California, O’Brien figured out early on that political humor wasn’t her expertise. “There’s other comedians that do it so much better that I don’t want to get into that,” she said.
Instead, the rising comic found her voice in dry, self-deprecating humor — the deadpan, drawn-from-life depictions of such experiences as, say, being a chubby kid and not realizing it at the time.
“My parents didn’t tell me,” she said. “It wasn’t until someone alerted me at school that I was chubby, because I thought I was awesome.”
“It was my fault,” she added. “I mean, I ate way too much.”
Growing up, O’Brien lived in Astoria and Warrenton, playing sports and dancing in Maddox Dance Studio’s Little Ballet Theatre. At 5, she was an extra in “Kindergarten Cop” when it was filmed at her grade school, Astor Elementary, but her scene got cut. “They didn’t know talent,” she said.
Though not yet a household name, O’Brien has performed in lineups with Judd Apatow and David Spade (her biggest comedic influence). Stage fright was never a problem for her, but appearing in front of her idols is its own gauntlet. “I get more nervous to do well in front of them than I do in front of an audience of people I don’t know,” she said.
She’s also gone on United Service Organizations tours for troops overseas, on military bases in Kosovo, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and all over the U.K.
Asked if, as her career got underway, she had shows flop, she said, “Oh yeah. Everyone’s bombed. Of course.”
Each audience is like a focus group for the next one — sometimes the laughter, or its lack, is in the comic’s control, sometimes not. With each successive show, comedians must do with their routines what they do with their lives: take stock of their shortcomings and turn that knowledge into a strength. It’s in that scary realm of self-awareness that their art is born.
“No one wants to hear you tell jokes about all the wonderful things that are happening to you all the time,” O’Brien said.
And, she added, “you have to have a certain amount of empathy. You have to be able to look at situations and see the darkness in it, but then also the humor.”
Tickets for O’Brien’s show can be purchased at curiouscomedy.org.