In her weekly Sunday-night standup show, The Complexities of Purchasing a Poodle Pillow, at the Steve Allen Theater, Mary Lynn Rajskub tells of being invited to Washington, D.C., last year to participate in a panel on counterterrorism that was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and hosted by Rush Limbaugh.
Why would an admittedly apolitical comedienne get invited to Washington for a dog-and-pony show by the infamous right-wing think tank? Apparently, due to the trickery of television, Rajskub is sometimes confused with Chloe O’Brian, the CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) computer genius on Fox’s patriotic hit series 24. Here’s the shocker, Rush: She’s just playing a part.
“I don’t know anything about terrorism,” she says. “But I usually know my [acting] objective.”
Rajskub made it to Washington because D.C.’s pols and pundits love meeting celebrities — as in love. When Limbaugh met Rajskub at the panel, she says, she leaned forward to accept his kiss on the cheek, but the conservative pundit landed a big smooch directly on her lips instead.
“That was odd,” she reflects.
In her standup act, Rajskub explains how 10 camera flashes went off at exactly that moment, and images of the kiss went flying over the Internet, along with rumors of an affair between the portly radio host and the comely young TV star — rumors she later felt compelled to deny in public, since Limbaugh hadn’t the grace, or the interest, to do so.
Rajskub goes on to tell how, the morning after the alleged kiss, her now ex-fiancé — a political progressive, evidently feeling betrayed — said to her, “So they’ve got you now. Did he suck your soul out and replace it with maggots?”
Then she smiles a little smile, laced with mischief, or evil, or something, and gets this twinkle in the eye that says, “Believe this if you dare, suckers” — as though the whole episode might have been an invention, or a dream.
The show also has a bit where she describes a later correspondence with Limbaugh. After all the brouhaha over their alleged romance, she wrote him to ask if he’d be interested in getting together. His response, which I don’t want to spoil if you’re going to see the show, was blistering.
I ask Rajskub about the alleged correspondence when we meet at LACMA a couple of weeks after I’d seen her show.
“Oh, I just made that up,” she says, with as much conviction as when she recounts l’affaire Limbaugh during her show.
Rajskub isn’t the first comedian to toy conceptually with that razor-thin divide between the real and the invented. In the ’80s, performing at what was then the Huntington Hartford Theatre on Vine Street (now the Ricardo Montalban Theatre), Andy Kaufman kept promising that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be dropping by for a brief appearance, and that after the show, the entire audience would be chauffeured to a party with milk and cookies. Kaufman drew waves of incredulous laughter every time he repeated the promises. Seven minutes before the end of his act, the grand proscenium curtain rose, and there indeed stood the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which performed a set. As the audience left the theater, they saw Vine Street lined with buses, which shuttled patrons to the nearby Old Spaghetti Factory for a banquet of milk and cookies — then brought them back again.
In her show Wreckage, Lauren Weedman told a true story born of a fiction so extraordinary it reshaped reality. For reasons having to do with a hyperactive imagination and a desperate need for attention, Weedman spun a tale for a college boyfriend that she’d been raped. She hadn’t, but she couldn’t let go of the story, even when police asked her to identify her assailant from a row of mortified suspects in a lineup.
“You don’t talk like Chloe,” a woman in the front row points out during the first minute of Rajskub’s act.
The patron is right. Chloe speaks with assurance and competence. She’s got the entire world in her laptop, every week sparing the nation from another terrorist attack. Rajskub, however, is a kid from art school in Detroit who hasn’t had Internet service in five months and can’t figure out how to use a wireless connection in Starbucks.
“I’m in Starbucks holding my iPhone, trying to see if it was getting reception, when my 5-pound puppy gets tangled and pinned in the power cord,” she tells me at the LACMA cafeteria on this quiet Friday morning. “I can’t move, ’cause she’s all tied up. She starts screaming. I’m just trying to check my e-mail, and my dog acts like she’s being tortured, and my coffee falls on the computer.”
We decide to check out some galleries at LACMA. When we purchase tickets, a teenager peers over from behind the counter and says through the glass, “My mom really likes your show.” Rajskub pauses for a split second and replies, “Your mom?”
As we walk through the galleries, Rajskub mentions that she’d driven over from Woodland Hills. I’d wrongly pegged her as more of a city gal. Something about the stories in her show about attending art school in Detroit.
“I like living in a house,” she says. “I like the suburbs. Sometimes I stand in my living room and talk to my imaginary children.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask.
“No, I’m dating,” she says. “I’m good at dating, but it’s hard to meet people. It was easier when I first came out here — 13 years ago, whatever. It was easy to meet people in the comedy scene, which was happening everywhere, three shows every night at different coffeehouses and bars. It’s different now. Why?” she asks. “You want to set me up with somebody?”
“I know this great guy who’s a coke dealer.”
“Awesome! Does he need any money?”
The first thing you notice about Rajskub is her frowning glare, a blend of shyness and aggression, as though she wants to stare at the floor, but somebody told her she really needs to look at the audience, which she does, reluctantly.
“I’m shy,” she explains. “I’ve always been scared, especially in social situations.”
This raises the question why someone like that would then volunteer to tell stories to a crowd, as she’s been doing at comedy clubs in San Francisco and L.A. since the early ’90s.
Perhaps, as Weedman’s saga demonstrated, the need for attention is the actor’s curse. Yet those who feel ambivalent about the attention, rather than wallow in it, make better thespians. Actors, however, get to hide behind a character, whereas a comedian’s mask is translucent. That’s why the best ones often look scared, their eyes darting furtively — like Weedman, Jon Stewart, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman and Rajskub.
The night I see her show, Rajskub rides the patron’s comment about not talking like Chloe into a rant about some folks at an earlier performance who walked out for that very reason, demanding their money back — “like they were so robbed that they were entitled to their 20 bucks back. Hey, I’ve had it hard too.”
Then she goes on a tongue-in-cheek tirade about how difficult it is to be Mary Lynn Rajskub, to be identified as Chloe rather than herself, the agony of celebrity parties, like after the Independent Spirit Awards (“I’m an independent spirit too!”), the fakery, the “spiral of shame.” Like a handball, her act ricochets off a wall into different eras of her life, stream-of-consciousness riffs on artist boyfriends who refused to get jobs, to her stint as a waitress at the Hard Rock Cafe, where she found herself serving John Corbett (hunky Chris Stevens on Northern Exposure at the time) and Corbett’s date, “who’s stretched out in a corner like a skeleton.” She remembers standing starstruck in front of the actor and trying to smile through her terror while staring at the floor, all the while making stupid faces.
“Being a waitress, I was forever making too many faces. People would be like, ‘Are you okay?’ ”
When she finally settled down, Corbett asked her if she had Down syndrome.
“I wanted to please him, so I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Next, a thematic flashback to a male friend in Michigan whom she didn’t particularly like but agreed to date because she wanted to please, and then whom she agreed to marry because she wanted to please. They’re on a flight to Florida, to meet his parents, and he starts throwing up into a barf bag.
“I know I was supposed to put my arm around him and provide comfort, but all I could think of was, Oh my God, what a pussy!”
Just before their wedding, he suggested a ménage à trois with a female co-worker.
“Of course, the idea disgusted me, but I said, ‘Sure, yeah, that would be hot.’ ”
Rajskub is not just funny. Her show is a brilliant, evolving portrait of a woman with a hole in her heart trying to operate in a world with a hole in its heart. It’s a maniacal scramble through the looking glass in search of meaning, where everything is its opposite.
The anti-terrorism panel in Washington was also attended by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“He’s really friendly,” Rajskub claims in her show.
She pushes it further, insisting Thomas asked her about her art background, eliciting the following exchange.
“My art is like that of a retarded child,” she said.
“Oh, don’t say that about yourself,” he replied.
“No, that’s a good thing.”
There’s that twinkle in Rajskub’s eye. Is any of this for real?
According to TheWashington Post, the panel discussion indeed took place, on Friday, June 23, 2006. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff was one of the panelists, and Thomas sat in the front row. It was titled “24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?”
That title bore itself out for Rajskub well before she started including the experience in her comedy routine, when the photo of Limbaugh kissing her on the lips began littering the Internet. Message boards and blogs lit up with reactions that ran the gamut from disgust to disdain. Here are some examples:
“You need to warn a person before posting a picture like that.”
“What? No. NO! Good God, Chloe . . . what the fuck are you thinking!”
“Her eyes are open and she looks very tense in this photo.”
“What a freaky, unexpected and nightmarish thing.”
“The saving grace in this is that Limbaugh has no desire to knock anyone up and breed. Take comfort.”
Indicative of how surreal the whole thing was for Rajskub is a paragraph from a June 24 report in The Washington Post: “As for Rajskub, the morning’s activities seemed to leave her a bit dazed. ‘I don’t really know what’s going on here,’ she said. ‘I said it on the panel, and I meant it, that acting allows you to stay inside a fantasy world. But this is very bizarre. I don’t know what to think. I’m really beside myself and speechless to be here.’ ”
When she did regain her speech, it took the form of hyperbole and exaggeration. Yet the stories she spins in her performances are neither political satires nor mere personal confessions. They’re an oddly introspective and self-deprecating form of expression that could be called Dostoyevskian comedy: characters who rebel against their better judgment and thereby deal their own losing hands (as in Notes From Underground: “Every fiber of his intellect told him what a disastrous mistake it would be to enter the room and join the party. He held the door handle for a minute, ruminated as he turned it, then entered the room.”).
For Rajskub, this means agreeing to her fiancé’s proposal for a threesome, even though the idea repels her. Or when she appears before the head of Homeland Security and a Supreme Court justice as an expert on counterterrorism, cognizant that she knows nothing about the topic.
Mary Lynn Rajskub grew up in Trenton, Michigan — a suburb of Detroit. She remembers performing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as a street urchin in A Christmas Carol, and playing Raggedy Ann in the local community theater. She says she was always reflective, “not quite a loner, but with loner tendencies. I had friends but always felt displaced somehow. I used to act so nobody could tell how I was feeling, and then I’d lose control.”
Strolling through the museum, Rajskub gravitates toward the more contemporary galleries. She’s looking for a Mark Rothko, which we can’t find. Her favorite painters straddle an expressionist-impressionist-modernist spectrum: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chaim Soutine, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Rothko.
Before college, she was doing watercolors of flowers.
“You pick out your favorite greeting card,” she explains, sipping her coffee and toying with a napkin. “Then take a piece of paper and draw a grid. And that’s how I learned to draw.”
When she applied to the Center for Creative Studies, an art school in Detroit, she showed them her flowers.
“I didn’t really have any taste in art — I didn’t even know what a sculpture was — and they said, ‘Oh, you need still lifes or portraits.’ So I did the still lifes and portraits in charcoal. I got in and got a scholarship.”
Rajskub says she couldn’t have made a better choice, eventually learning that her taste leaned more toward the emotional and abstract than the formal. In 1992, she moved with a friend to the Bay Area and was admitted to the San Francisco Art Institute, which she found lacking in structure, and also lacking space to store canvases and equipment. That’s when she started doing performance art in class.
“When a performance is over, it’s over. You don’t need to store anything. But I thought, I’ve got to get out of the classroom.”
With the help of comedian friend Jerry Kramer, Rajskub started doing open-mike poetry in bars, which was big in the ’90s, especially in San Francisco. “There was the transvestite from the street reading her poetry, the intellectual, so it was an exercise in characters, how they think they’re coming across versus how they’re really coming across.”
Comedy clubs were closing, and many comics were trying out their routines in alternative venues. Inspired by comics “who had a complete sense of their personality, doing things they might not try in comedy clubs,” Rajskub did a long performance-art piece in which she dressed in a towel, read from a scroll and fired shots from a prop banana.
“Then this woman in the San Francisco Weekly wrote that I was one of the strangest, funniest performance artists, and I said, Whooah.”
Rajskub used her stage fright to inform her persona, which she says people found slightly freaky. At one gig, she asked to be strong-armed onto the stage, as though she were being forced into the limelight against her will. She says the “comedy” was met with something between hostility and sympathy.
Kramer suggested that in order to frame the act as “performance,” she should announce at the top of the show that she’d just taken Ecstasy. That helped.
“They needed a context for bizarre behavior that didn’t fit into the standup mold,” Rajskub explains. And that context gave her the license to come up with ever more abstract imagery.
“I’ve never been a joke teller,” she explains.
Rajskub arrived in L.A. in 1993 to do live performance art. She had no head shots and was not gunning for the industry.
“I don’t really know why I came here,” she says. “It was a really exciting time. I miss it because of the people, but it’s not happening anymore.” She means the poetry readings in Laundromats, the sheer quantity of performances and recitations in coffeehouses, the sheer number of coffeehouses not named Starbucks.
And if it were still happening, Rajskub doesn’t know that she’d be a part of it.
“Would I want to perform in a Laundromat in Echo Park? Would it yield anything now? At that time, I’d have said yes.”
Meanwhile, being repped by a friend’s manager, who’d been hip-pocketing her since seeing her in San Francisco, Rajskub did a comedy cable show hosted by Janeane Garofalo, which led circuitously to her landing a part on the HBO comedy series Mr. Show, and then to one on The Larry Sanders Show. Paul Thomas Anderson saw her do a performance at Largo and gave her a part in Magnolia that was largely cut. However, he used her again in Punch-Drunk Love, which got her enough film screen time to be seen by 24’s producer, Joel Surnow. And so it goes.
But Rajskub continues to employ her trademark discomfort with herself in order to develop stories and refine a way of telling them. The challenge of this is that as she’s gotten older, she’s become more self-possessed.
“I don’t feel so nervous now,” Rajskub admits. “I was nervous in all situations, especially parties. I’ve improved a hundredfold.”
She certainly appeared poised during a recent appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Her body language conveyed a regal presence. Quick to pick up on sly innuendos and return them in the flicker of an eye, she was somewhere between übercompetent Chloe and Rajskub’s nervous comedy persona. Even with a gracious smile, her focus still gravitated toward the safety of the floor.
She has mixed emotions about such trappings of budding fame. “It makes me feel special, which is dangerous, because it’s made me more confident, made me some money, but there’s this little flag — be careful, because if you buy into this, you can use being recognized to heighten something that’s not real at all. I should go back to my roots, the real me.”
But who is “the real me” for anyone who’s evolving as life rolls by? These days, Rajskub is wrestling with her future as she grows more successful and as childhood fears and the desire for attention yield to adult yearnings and the desire for a home.
“The older you get — you need ways to meet people,” she says. “It doesn’t happen by magic.”
“So the bars just aren’t doing it?”
“I’ve been to my share of bars,” she says, laughing. “Too much drinking. Not enough action.”
She plays with her coffee cup for a moment.
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“People get married back home,” she reflects. “They settle down. They get jobs. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts and my things.’ But I don’t want to force it. Maybe it’s just who I am, and I have to give in to that. I had a teacher who was surrounded by objects. Maybe that’ll be me. Or, soccer practice with the kids in Woodland Hills.”
She smiles wistfully.
“People here live as children, living their dreams. You can do that for a very long time.”
Mary Lynn Rajskub performs The Complexities of Purchasing a Poodle Pillow at the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Sundays at 8 p.m., through the end of the year (no performance the first Sun. of each month). (323) 666-9797. Also, on Fri., Nov. 9 at 8 p.m., Rajskub joins Janeane Garofalo and the cast of Worst Laid Plans, monologues about bad sex, at Upright Citizens Brigade, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hlywd., (323) 908-8702.