Upright Citizens Brigade comedian Betsy Sodaro – the next great female comic – grew up in front of an audience. Her father, a playwright, put her to work when she was 4, performing melodramas, skits and classics for tourists, who wandered by their small stages in Wyoming and, later, Colorado. The youngest of four sisters, Sodaro specialized in bit parts and comic relief, even in A Christmas Carol. “He was like, 'What part would you want in this story?'?” says Sodaro, 29. “?'Jacob Marley, please!'?”
As her eighth-grade English teacher, however, her dad was less permissive. When she'd crack jokes during school, he'd force her to write “I will not talk in class” 500 times. Naturally, her favorite show was The Simpsons.
Her second favorite was Saturday Night Live, where Sodaro became mesmerized by Chris Farley. “Even if he was playing an asshole, you would see these moments of why he was an asshole and you would be on his side,” Sodaro explains. “There's heart to this silly weirdo – you feel sorry for this lunatic.”
Fingerprints of her influences are all over Sodaro's improv and sketch comedy. Like Farley, she's wild, physical and vulnerable – “especially those emotions that people don't like showing” – and like Bart, she looks like a cartoon. Barreling onto the stage, she resembles a football player crossed with a samurai: a broad-shouldered, rosy-cheeked tomboy who crams her wild waves into a signature topknot, which she likes because it keeps her bangs out of her face. On her first day shooting the pilot for NBC's now-canceled Animal Practice, the makeup department tried to tame her, straightening her hair and caking her with mascara and lipstick. But the director wasn't happy – he wanted the Betsy Sodaro he knew and loved.
Last summer when Paula Deen, a favorite impersonation of Sodaro's, made headlines for using the N-word, Sodaro struck a Farley-esque balance in a Funny or Die sketch about Deen's bungled apology. In soft focus, with her bun hidden under a blond bouffant, Sodaro's sad, guileless Deen tries to make amends while the director cuts every time she blunderingly brings up the Jews and gays. “I was always very worried about making fun of her,” Sodaro says. “I mean, I am making fun of her, but for what she's done wrong.”
To Sodaro, comedy isn't about being mean. It's about channeling tough feelings: desperation, overeagerness and a raw, rare sincerity. And her childhood training has made her impervious to stage fright. Playing a pervy male construction worker at a recent improv night with her group Bangarang!, she fearlessly mimed drinking pee out of a toilet.
Today, Sodaro's writing her own pilot, a sitcom about two best friends who drive a Lyft car and pick up passengers between their own slacker adventures. As a female comedian outside the standard mold, she's aware she'll have to carve her own niche. Sodaro rolls her eyes, recalling the college professor who lectured her that it was a known fact that women aren't as funny as men. She hears the counter-argument every time she charges in front of an audience to earn that first laugh. “That's everything,” Sodaro says with a smile. “It's like: Great, they get it, they get me – here we go!”
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