I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Reno is a comic monologist and a provocateur. She sparks her audiences into laughter and then challenges their perception of what’s funny. She doesn’t tell them what to think but asks, insistently, that they do by giving them an unabashed look at the inside of her own mind. Those who saw her two off-Broadway solo shows, Reno in Rage and Rehab and Reno Once Removed, know how politics can really get her going, especially when it enters into rape, abortion and the economy—the fun subjects. By the November elections she’ll have appeared in a byte-sized, one-woman HBO special with her special brand of outspeak, and will follow that with a feature film, Running Woman (New Line) in which she’ll star as—what else?—your friendly neighborhood politician. We talked a couple of weeks prior to the New York primary.
Linda Yablonsky When I first met you, I couldn’t separate the on-stage Reno from the real-life Reno.
Reno I’m sure I was leaking.
LY Now you don’t seem to need to be so “on” all the time.
R Well, now I’m more secure.
LY I remember you zipping all over town every night of the week to appear in the different comedy clubs.
R Yeah, I haven’t thought of it of late. But the comedy clubs were really hard. I mean, I could burst into tears.
LY So how did you get from the comedy clubs to the legitimate theater? I mean, it’s a jump most people don’t make.
R I didn’t. I think you’ve got my history wrong, or her story. I began performing downtown at WOW and Limbo, Wah-Wah Hut, places like that, and when I’d venture into the straight comedy world, I felt ugly and wrong. And my friends said, “Just stay down here, keep doing what you do and somebody’ll dig it.” My form was completely different, everybody was sweet, I was sour, or the other way around.
LY How would you characterize what they were doing?
R They were funny—it was just a very much shorter form.
LY Isn’t that good, though, when you don’t do what they do?
R It isn’t good when you’re on stage and the audience gets up and leaves. It’s time to pee now, there’s a girl coming on.
LY Do people really do that? Get up and leave when they see you?
R They did then. Albany. Albany, I got kicked out of. I completely forgot about this. The guy paid me off to leave.
R They weren’t coming for me, they were coming for the “comedy”—I was the middle. No, the guy before me talked about the color of his shit compared to what he ate. I swear, that is exactly what he talked about.
LY And they loved him, right?
R Loved him? He was the star. They gave him extra time when they kicked me off.
LY Where was this?
R In the basement of a deli. And it was white, iron chairs, you know, sort of a Serendipity look, our version of a comedy fairyland … As I started to come to the stage, you saw people turning around, their shoulders slumping.
LY Because you’re a woman?
R Well, I guess, yeah, because they didn’t know who I was yet. All they knew about me was that I was a woman. And they had no expectations that a woman would have anything to say they wanted to hear, at least that’s how I felt, but … maybe it was time to go to the bathroom. I mean, it was a bar. It looked like an ice cream parlor, but it was a bar, which is always a worry for me—the style clashing was nauseating.
LY Have you been back there since? I mean to Albany, not to that place.
R Yeah. Schenectady. I had a great show there in February.
LY That’s near Albany?
R They’re sister cities, what’s the matter with you? Come on! Schenectady is General Electric. Albany is the government. So there’s a certain animosity between the people who have to work for a living, and the people who get paid for nothing.
LY You take details out of your life, intimate things everybody has in common, but that they don’t talk about in public and you talk about it on stage and it’s shocking. The material itself isn’t, but it’s like opening a Pandora’s box of family secrets. You’re upset about it. (laughter) You don’t just take it as, “Well, that’s how it was at home.” But that gives everyone in the audience a chance to laugh at themselves.
R Having a point of view is decidedly a main characteristic of mine. I can’t simply let things go by. That’s probably the biggest hook into what I do—that I take everything personally. I wanted to write a grant when I was still poor—well, I’m poor again, but then I was poor with no prospects—I wanted to write a grant to the City of New York to do invisible comedy throughout the city. Laugh provocateur. Just be in a subway, doing something outrageous. You know how people totally try to avert their eyes on the subway, how stiff and upsetting it is? And one of the ways we protect ourselves, as everyone knows, is that we do not lock eyes. Well, the liberating quality when we do all lock eyes—in a subway car, on an elevator—is so glorious, I love it to such a degree, that I thought, that’s how I could make a living. But I was too unfocused to write the grant.
LY What do you mean, invisible?
R Unplanned, spontaneous, accidental. What happens in my favorite events, my favorite performance of myself, is that we all have a moment of shared air. Laughing is liminal—not inside, not outside. Sort of doorwayish. It’s extra. It’s on top of time. And that’s what laughing is.
LY You seem to feel more comfortable being yourself on stage than off. You always want an audience, and you want to make them laugh. It’s not just people-pleasing …
R Oh, I still have that. Bigtime, bigtime, bigtime, bigtime.
LY So you think that came from your family resisting you?
R I think it came from my absolute need to control. Because I made the assumption the family that adopted me could not handle real emotion. Real human experience.
LY But this is an adult talking.
R I did feel that way then. I swear to Christ I know it sounds perverse, but I swear that’s how I always felt. Well, it was obvious, when Ricky would bend over to kiss Lucy on the TV, the vibe in the room became frigid. Ice cubes would form on the ceiling. It would be like, “Oh, let’s get up and leave, oh my God.” It was like Ricky and Lucy were coming into the room and tying off, and shooting up, and blowing each other. And it was very embarrassing. They were ashamed.
LY Were you embarrassed?
R I was ashamed, too, yes, it was horrible. And I was having sex all the time.
LY How old were you?
R Six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Till the time I was 14, when everyone else was having sex. I knew I’d have a reputation if I did, so I quit till I was 17. I lived this ridiculous double-life. And they had no idea what I was doing, not because I was afraid of being punished. No, I was afraid it would break them.
LY And in your show, one of the things you say is, “All I ever wanted is to be precocious!”
R Yeah, right. That’s true, yeah. Well, I could not allow myself to settle into a task long enough to work it. I couldn’t study, couldn’t do the ant farm, chemistry set, books. And I was in such despair about that. But I found I got an immediate response at something that I could do, which was to make people laugh. And it was the only thing I could do, that and have sex, and it was my salvation. I was desperate for it.
LY Sounds like the two best things in life.
R Yeah, but you’re supposed to be studying in second grade. I never learned how to read. (Really?) No, I have a big problem with reading today. I’ve been recommended to a psychiatrist who deals with such things.
LY But you write. Do you write your own material?
R Sure, of course. Depends on what it is. Some of it I’ve written. A lot of it is just off the cuff and then reworked.
LY You can provoke people. Not into laughing, but into anger, because you’re aggressive.
R Not as much anymore, by a long shot. Oh, yeah. Anything to get a response. I would follow the older girls home from school, and run up behind them and try to get closer and closer, and curse, swear.
LY What about the older boys?
R No, no, no. The older girls. I tried to get noticed from people I wanted to learn from. What do you learn from a 15 year-old boy?
LY Well, you didn’t feel peer pressure to attract attention from boys?
R This was different. This was about me and my fulfillment as a worker, as an intellectual … let me try to get back into that time. There’s only glitches in my mind. Actually, there was Mickey, the guy around the block who was a junkie. I tried to get his attention all the time, that’s true. He was beautiful. I really had a major crush on him—primarily because he was a junkie. But the older girls and their books—they had literature on their arms, I felt; it was all a fantasy.
LY How old were you when you left home?
R Old. Sixteen.
LY Were you thinking about going onstage then?
LY Not at all? What were you thinking of, do you know?
R A couple of things. I liked the idea of hangovers, that sounded good.
LY You represent yourself on stage as someone who can’t do anything right, and yet you’re bigger than life and become very vulnerable and appealing.
R Is that how I present myself, really?
LY In a way. Sometimes I get the feeling that you’re trying very hard. When I was watching you in Reno Once Removed, I thought, Why is she trying so hard? They’re already with her.
R Yeah. I mean, my whole life, I’ve watched myself. I need to get smarter, quicker, deeper, more succinct. The whole set of premises I’d been working with for that show evolved into the best I could make of the disparity between what’s a contradiction and what’s hypocrisy. I tried like hell to get those premises to infiltrate my show, but I don’t think I was successful. But I’m still trying. I have to accept contradiction to a certain point, but when it becomes hypocrisy, it’s no longer acceptable—in myself and also in President Bush, etc. I told you I take everything personally.
LY This was your focus for putting the show together?
R Yes. You know, I have a big desire to be a writer. That’s my primary desire, need, want. So often I have these gut feelings that I cannot articulate. Then I pick up the Nation, and someone has written it.
LY But you do articulate it. See, I don’t think you realize it, you make up in sound and body language what you don’t have words for. (Yeah.) Which is more than exceptional.(Thank you.) It’s not analysis, maybe.
R Right, right, right, right. I mean, I’m not Calvin Trillin; I’m not Montaigne.
LY Well, you’re a storyteller. Give us a brief list of the things that make you angry.
R Denial. People looking at things right in the face and accommodating around them …
LY Do you feel it’s your duty or mission to …
R Yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. That’s why I’m so frustrated with my inability to read, I mean, I could burst into tears about it. But I’m always afraid I will come to this huge conclusion, finally, after all this scraping, that it has been said by Hallmark on 16 of their cards already. So I’ve got to just trust this process, because I am here to serve, I am here to give as much energy as possible. And get brave, get really more and more brave. I’ve been scared my whole fuckin’ life, and I want to be out there in front of a huge amount of people. Particularly the mainstream. Because those are the people who are not in the moment. You know, the people who stay at home and listen to their televisions only. I’m getting closer and closer, and I love that.
LY In the New York Times review of Reno Once Removed, the guy called it “epic fidgeting.” Did you read this?
R No. That’s actually pretty good.
LY You said something very good in that show—something like only a small percentage of people in this country make money and the rest are volunteers.
R It really pisses me off. And the Democratic National Committee insists they cannot win on the basis of class politics, and the Republicans say the Democrats are infused theoretically with class politics, but they’re not. No one speaks to class politics. You and me, we put our money in the banks, right? We pay taxes. And there’s six or seven people in the bank who lend money to six or seven people and the rest of the country, the taxpayers pay the banks back. And at the end of all this, our social security doesn’t pay for us. All the reasons we pay taxes, which is to have a better life, to have our streets paved, and to have people not sitting on those streets because they don’t have a home, doesn’t happen. We simply pay for those six or seven people to have a great fucking huge amount of life. With a lot of flamboyant extravagances. So what isn’t a class struggle? The entire reality is a class struggle.
LY I’ve seen a lot of your material when it’s raw, and I love it when it’s raw, there’s a certain tension in it. Do you have a sense of toning anything down to get the mainstream to listen?
R Not toned down, sharpened. In New York, people come halfway, three-quarters, seven-eighths to you. They have such vibrant minds, all you have to say is one letter, and they’re right there, because they bring a lot to it. It might not be what you’re talking about, but it works anyway. You go to Cleveland, well, if you go to one little downtown club in Cleveland, you have got to spell it out.
LY What do you feel are the major differences between the first show, Reno in Rage and Rehab and Reno Once Removed?
R The first one was much more vulgar.
LY Vulgar? In what way?
R Uh, thick. It wasn’t very elegant. It was put together for entertainment’s sake. I couldn’t think in the overview yet. This was my first attempt to put a theme I most care about through a show. The first show didn’t have any theme at all. I mean, the theme was me …
LY That was two years ago?
R Uh-huh. It’s all coming together only right now. And I’m so slow, you know I’m not a David Byrne with experiments in a lot of different areas. I’m just doing the best I can with what I’ve got. All during the time I was a drug addict and alcoholic, I never had a moment’s peace. I always wanted to be somewhere I wasn’t, and somebody I wasn’t. I was living like a Nikon, you know, you look through those heavy, old-time, single-lens reflex cameras, and there’s 12 images, there’s a face with 12 noses, and you have to screw down this gigantic goddamned cylinder until you have one nose, then you snap the picture. I could never get one nose. I could never decide where I was. And now, since I’ve gotten calmer inside, I can enjoy my own company, I know where I am when I’m there. Jesus, I never dreamed that anything would come true, so I really stifled my dreams.
LY Anything can happen.
R Good for you, Linda. Sounding hopeful tonight. A little hope buzz on your shoulder there, where’d that come from, huh?
LY It came from not having an overwhelming need to appear cool. Now I just am, so I don’t have to worry about it.
R You know it’s funny because “cool” was such an important thing to be, but cool is the lighter version of cold, you know?
LY It’s not allowing yourself to be yourself—you have to wear a mask at all times. After a while your face gets stiff.
R Just like all those people with plastic surgery—not to say I wouldn’t do it, though.
LY You know what was funny in your performance tonight, not funny, but what I found amusing, in an ironic sense, that political material or political concepts have played a part in your development, and tonight you were like a politician campaigning for something.
R I don’t know that that sounds particularly pleasant or complimentary.
LY I don’t mean it to be not complimentary. My question is, would you ever think about going into politics?
R I’m not smart enough. I’m not saying that the politicians we deal with are smart, mind you, but I think a person has to be very, very smart. To maintain dignity for the people she represents, to not sell people down the river, and to have an overview in her mind. You have to have a very thick skin, which I do not have.
LY But you’ve said all politicians are jerks, now you think they’re not?
R No, when I said I’m not smart enough to be a politician, I wanted to make sure you knew that a lot of politicians who are in American politics are smart, specifically, the women, I wanted to make sure you knew that.
LY Well, the interesting thing is that, in the movie you’ll be making, you’re going to play a politician. Do you know how you’ll construct this personality?
R It’s not going to be too hard because the story is exactly perfect for me.
LY I got the idea tonight that you were trying out different characters.
R Oh, yes?
LY More so than I’ve seen you do before. I’ve often heard you go off into these little skits where you’ll be someone else.
R Oh, voices.
LY Yes, but I heard many more of them tonight.
R Yeah, but this is going to be a r-e-a-lity film. I want this film to be gritty. I’m not sure that the writers that they have are gonna come from a gritty enough place, but I’m not going to be able to do a phony accent at all.
LY I don’t think any of your voices are phony … they are still you, I mean that’s you talking. (pause) There’s a side of you one doesn’t see on stage a whole lot—I have it on good authority that you can be very seductive.
R I suspect there might be some opportunity for that.
LY You haven’t seen the script yet?
R That’s true, oh God …
LY When are you going to have time to do the series of short pieces for HBO Downtown?
R I’m doing them now. Hopefully, they’ll start airing in May on Basic Cable, Comedy Central.
LY What sort of character are you in the TV series?
R I’m Reno, like it’s a one-person television show.
LY There aren’t other people in the show?
R Well, there are other people, Clarence Thomas might be on my show, not that he would be asked to be on my show, we would just take him. It’s a really great idea, everyone loves it. They just have to give me the money now to do it.
LY How do you feel about using material written by other people?
R The way I envision the TV show is obviously going to be different from how it ends up because you can’t possibly know how it will work out. But, eventually, if this project evolves into a longer form, weekly, for example, I imagine that people will come up with some ideas, and then I will take ’em and fuck with them.
LY The movie will be a different process?
R With the movie, I’m not writing the screenplay, Mark O’Donnell and Lauren Swift are; with the television show, I’ll be writing all of it.
LY Have you ever worked with other people’s material?
R No, except for Tony Kushner’s play, in which I played a character, which was fabulous. It was such a relief, such an incredible relief. And anyway, I need other people’s minds, otherwise my mind does nothing.
LY In your act, you jump around a lot, physically and thematically. I saw you do that in Dixon Place a few weeks ago, you managed to go from the Vatican, to the police, to shopping on Canal Street, it all made sense and was so funny, I thought that was amazing. You keep people off balance that way, and yet it all ties together somehow. But there are times when you seem to be veering off course so far, I get nervous for you.
R Oh, yeah, sure. I don’t mind that nervous-for-me stuff.
LY Are you consciously encouraging that?
R No, ’cause I get nervous for myself as well. It’s very ambivalating. ’Cause part of me wants to be Norman Mailer who sits down at a fucking typewriter—I have no idea if this is his process, but he’s so prolific I think he must—and says, “Oh, I have to write this for The Nation, I have to write about the Bush war.” Okay, so he’ll write about the Bush war, one sentence, two sentences, three sentences, four sentences. Maybe he has one draft, and then, pop, he has the real thing. He can think one sentence after another. I don’t. I can’t even talk one sentence after another, and what the fuck am I going to do about it? I don’t know. Apparently, that’s my metier, what happens when I talk off the top of my head. The audience, yes, feels like they’re in this airplane and they’re going to crash. No one wants to be awkwardized. Awkward is one of the things you don’t want to be most of all. That’s why you don’t want to look at someone in the subway.
LY So is this TV show going to be Reno Engaged?
R Yeah. The concept is ten two-minute films. I’m not positive what themes they’ll include, but they’ll all be me taking it personally.
LY Do you have a title?
R Well, Taking it Personally was the title when I first pitched it to HBO. It will be one show, but we’re going to do them separately, and then they’ll all be unto themselves, but fit together. As soon as we finish the first one, it’ll be on the air.
LY Reno, your shows are … what are you going to say in two minutes?
R Oh, I know. It’s going to be very hard. But the fact is, two minutes is what Andy Rooney has, it’s what Dan Rather has, and it is unfortunately the going reality on television. But, it’s true, that was my argument constantly—that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do in less than half an hour. It’s a challenge for me to be succinct. To make a point in that amount of time, to have a beginning, middle, and end, and to put it all together. I don’t really think I can fall on my face. They’re giving me a lot of support in terms of their equipment, production space, and they’re way behind it. They’ve urged me to do something like this for a long time. Plus, I’ll be out there with my take, which I think is a lot of people’s take. I want to de-mystify the economy. I want to talk about the Federal Reserve Bank, but I need to find other language to say it in because even those two words together, “federal” and “reserve”—everyone’s already asleep. Oh my God!
LY Reno, you always get the biggest response and the biggest laugh and the biggest applause when you talk about cocks flying up people’s asses. When you get down and dirty, that’s when people identify. Not about the economy.
R No, I don’t think that’s true, because what I said is, accruing debt is like fucking, and the way we operate, we must think it’s sexy to be in the red.
LY Can you explain that? We only have two minutes.
R Yeah, yeah. Well, I can’t do it off the top of my head. That’s the thing. These have to be thought out.
LY How do you see your image as a performer, as a speaker? Do you think that you’re speaking for a particular segment?
R I just think I’m speaking for pulling back the shade. Don’t you see this? ’Cause we do.
LY That’s a title for you: “Pulling Back the Shade.”
R This guy stopped me in front of Macy’s yesterday afternoon. He was maybe, I don’t know, 20 years old. He drives a truck, white guy. Sort of a big, New Jersey kind of guy, you know? He said, “Hey, Reno! Reno, hey!” And he was with this woman who was not as indelicate as he. And she was embarrassed. And I was trying not to look at her because I wanted him to speak. But I didn’t think he was going to shut up anyway, this guy. And I was stopped for a stoplight in front of Macy’s, and there was this big traffic jam, so we had a couple of minutes. “You don’t take no shit, Reno.”
LY He’s seen your show, obviously.
R Yeah. He says, “You don’t take no shit, Reno. I love that. I love that. And funny.”
LY Do you get a lot of people like that in your audiences?
R I don’t know who’s in my audiences. I really should start looking at that. I have to go out front after my shows. I have got to remember that. I have to go out in front because people are intimidated to come backstage. Even people I know.
Linda Yablonsky is the writer/director of the “Night Light” reading series at Pat Hearn Gallery. She is currently completing a book, Nicotine Queen: A Quit Journal.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee