Go backstage on Broadway, behind the scenes on network television, and inside the complicated psyche of a talented performer struggling to play the role of a complete human. Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories intimately exposes the nature of identity in the life of a performing artist, snapshotting the hopeful search for a self Chartoff could love, and someone else’s self to love, too. Spoiler alert: She succeeds. What does it mean to know who you are when you’ve played so many others to a T? Who is the Me in She? Find out how one multi-faceted and famed actress discovered herself when we Drop In with Melanie Chartoff.
Beginning as an actor on and Off Broadway, Melanie Chartoff is best known for the many characters she created on Fridays, Seinfeld, Newhart, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Weird Science, Wise Guy and Rugrats. Recently published in McSweeney’s, Medium, Entropy, Purple Clover, The Jewish Journal, Funny Times, Five on the Fifth, Glint, Entropy, Verdad, Bluestem, Evening Street Journal, Avalon Review, Mused, Jewlarious, Defenestration, Better after 50, Living the Second Act, and two editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul (Simon and Schuster), Odd Woman Out is her first book.Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers, conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table, diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically, stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience, the joys, the fist pumps, the detours, and the hard-won truths of those who blazed the trail so that we might do the same. And now, here’s your host, Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In, everyone. It’s only appropriate that our amazing guest, Melanie Chartoff, is here with us today. It’s Darwin Day and the Chinese New Year of the Ox, fated to be lucky and beneficial to friendships and love. 212 years ago, was the birthday of Charles Darwin who wrote a book that shook up the world on the origin of species. He burst the bubble on creationists theory and described how animals survive, adapt, and thrive.
Actor extraordinaire, Melanie Chartoff pricks the bubble on stardom in her new book, Odd Woman Out: Exposure in Essays and Stories. It’s a comic tragic broadside to the hype and glamour of being a star while surviving, adapting, thriving, and inviting a soft side, vulnerable to self-doubt, and ultimately, to self-acceptance and even love. Good morning. Welcome, Melanie.
Melanie: I hope I can live up to all that you’ve said. Thank you so much, Diane. It’s good to be with you.
Diane: It’s lovely to be with you. Your book is wonderful. You have no fears. You have this incredible resume. It’s really impressive. But in a minute, I’m going to ask you to describe yourself while I give some background to our listeners. From her 1950s childhood in a suburb, Melanie Chartoff describes it as an amusement park. This gives you an idea as to her wit, to performing Moliere on Broadway and to voicing characters in the popular Rugrats cartoon series. Melanie Chartoff was anxious and out of character, preferring any imaginary world to her real one.
Beginning as an actor on and off-Broadway, she is best known for the many characters she created on Fridays, Seinfeld, Newhart, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Weird Science, Wise Guy, and Rugrats. She’s recently published in a slew of journals, the Jewish Journals, Funny Times, Five on Fifth, Jewlarious, Defenestration, Better After 50, and two editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Odd Woman Out is her first book. Melanie, in your current state of mind, you started with the idea of being an odd woman out, how do you describe yourself now?
Melanie: Well, I’m an odd woman out in love with an odd man. We have a wonderful life, even in COVID which I thought would be claustrophobic. We have fallen more in love than ever. I know it’s Darwin day and many of the years of the Ox. It’s Valentine’s Day on Sunday. So, I’m sort of celebrating that all week long. I’m pretty happy with my odd life now. It’s not like anybody else might have prepared for themselves but I chose it. It suits me. I feel very fortunate in these strange times.
Diane: You strike me as not being odd at all. Maybe it felt coming out of the 50s that the arc of your life was an oddity. Many things were because it was such a narrow definition of what wasn’t odd. You have this funny subtitle to your book, Exposure in Essays and Stories. Sometimes writing a memoir is a little like disrobing in public.
I thought to myself that you haven’t done that but were wearing a bodystocking. I’m kind of clear on the details. Everyone around you, I’m sure wanted you to ditch the bodystocking. In this book, in terms of disrobing, how’s it been to shine this way and to shine a light on some of the ups and downs, the valleys, and the peaks for you and for other actors and performers? What’s it like to have this kind of exposure?
Melanie: People have said I’ve been very courageous to come out of the closet and talk about what I was really feeling. I’m getting a lot of notes and letters from women who are saying, “I felt the same way in that period of time.” I think the Me Too, just kind of revived our ability to tell the truth about our traumas and about things that have happened to us in the past. I know that women in my age, over 65, have experienced a lot of the same dilemmas with men that I did. I know in my particular case, I was brought up to be very wholesome, as just a virgin as St. Mary until I became a married woman.
That married woman seemed to be further and further out from the lifestyle I was actually living. It didn’t seem like I was going to be married in my early 20s and have children. It didn’t seem to be in the cards for me. A lot of women of my age dealt with the sudden availability of the pill and how that released us from our bondage of staying wholesome, pure, frigid, uptight, and clean until we married. And for me, there were a lot of psychological ships that came about with this permissive society. It happened very suddenly, Diane. It was over a like a 4- or 5-year period of time that morality and chastity kind of reform.
Women having the same entitlement to free love as men came out of the closet. I think a lot of women are identified with a lot that I have exposed. Certainly, I think you’re aware in the last few years because of me, too. Memoirists are getting a lot more honest and risking their family’s reputations and telling the truth about what went down. I don’t have much family left. I’m sorry to say my dad passed a long time ago. I don’t have any siblings but his sister in Brooklyn.
My mom is 96 and living in a very protective assisted living facility in the New Haven area. I didn’t have children. My sister didn’t have children. We don’t have that sort of feeling of protection of our progeny from the lives that we’ve led. I felt okay about coming out of the closet at this point. I’m a married woman. I own my own home. I have enough money to live on, fortunately. So, I didn’t feel that there was a big risk except perhaps to my mom, who might not want the world to know all about the hard time she has suffered from my dad.
Diane: How is that gone? How did she respond to it?
Melanie: Oddly enough, she had a stroke when she received the audiobook that same day. And I thought, “Oh, my goodness. Is it because she read the book?” I reached her in the hospital where she’s located right now. She was watching television at the time it happened. She had not opened the audible book yet. It didn’t have to do with that. Hopefully, she’ll feel that this number of stories that involve our relationship and her relationship with my dad will be illustrative of a repressive time in society. It’s a patriarchal time in society. I want her to see it as contributing to the learning curve rather than a personal matter.
Diane: I think it is a loving rendition and many memoirs struggle with this, revealing family secrets. As you say, it has taken the lid off Pandora’s box of secrets in general. Thank goodness, that honesty is more the way it’s what we’re seeking. With your mother, her portrayal is honest. You go through a lot of what Stan, you’re your husband to be, talks about in terms of you both pushing each other’s buttons. I don’t think there are many women alive who can’t relate to that and have that special gear of getting buttons pushed by their mothers. I wondered if you did write the book in order to connect this way. What were some of your motivations for doing that for sharing yourself?
Melanie: One of the motivations was when I told women that I was about to get married at 65. They would cry. You give me hope because I knew a lot of young career women who were single heading for 40. They were very frightened that they would not have complete lives, that they would have success and career but also have the fulfillment of loving relationships and possibly children. Giving them hope was a very motivating factor for me. Showing them that no matter how complicated you feel, if you love yourself and work on loving, you probably will attract someone whom you deserve and who deserves you.
I had to go through a lot of that. I know it seems trite at this point. You have to love yourself before you can love someone else. I illustrated quite intimately the thoughts that went through my mind in relationships which did not have to do with my having my own volition and the relationships that I needed to care for men, that I needed to help them through their difficulties. That comes up a lot. I’m sure a lot of people will read the book and say, “No. Turn the other way. Don’t do that.”
There are a lot of red flags in the book that I hope women will learn from my book. It is not how to book, it’s how not to for the first time. I’m motivated to talk about that both. Diane, I had heard a talk by Erica Young, who was a kind of a thought leader. When I was young in the 70s and 80s, she wrote a book called Fear of Flying which was very radical for its time. It was about what it would be like to be sexually free? She spoke at an event and I overheard it on the computer. She said, “I only write a book when there’s a question to answer or something that has not yet been part of the cultural conversation.”
For me, especially during the era of Me too, I wasn’t hearing women my age contributes to what we went through and our sexual maturation. I wanted to expose that to the culture. There are a lot of young women certainly, Pamela Adlon with her show Better Things, Chelsea Handler with all of her memoirs. I don’t want to list names and pronounce them wrong. But a lot of women are finally fessing up to the ordeals they endured and how they survived.
Diane: We were supposed to shoulder on. That’s the thing. I think your mother and father’s relationship was an example of that. It was catastrophic. The idea has you just kept it together until one shocking day when your mother told you at the end of an entire conversation about a million other things, “By the way, I’m leaving your dad.” I think you must have wanted to drop the phone. It must have been a huge shock.
Melanie: It was a shock. I wasn’t sure she could do it. First of all, I hadn’t known my mother to be strong and assertive but she had an auto accident when she was nearly killed, survived by a thread. My father sent it to therapy because she wouldn’t drive anymore and because the therapy came free with insurance. She went to therapy. My dad would call me and he’d say, “I don’t understand this therapy is not helping your mother. She won’t wash the dishes anymore. She’s talking back to me.”
I thought I was just so delighted that my mother was asserting herself and not letting him push her around so much. Little by little this therapy and new friends that she made, gave her self-confidence, gave her the balls or the ovaries to get out of this 42-year relationship with my father and find out what it was like to be herself, to be not living with anyone else. She had never lived alone until she finally got an apartment with another woman who was leaving her husband at the same time.
In New Haven, they kind of hid out for a few years until they could get divorced and show their faces in public. They used to go out and disguises themselves. My mother and her friend would wear wool hats and sunglasses so that they could go to their usual stores and libraries without being recognized. I wrote a movie about this which I’m going to turn into a book because it’s so hilarious. Moving on, to see how my mother finally stood on her own and my father had to learn to stand on his, that was the remainder of his life to writing.
Diane: What’s the title?
Melanie: It’s called New Haven. A new harbor that each of them had defined for themselves.
Diane: There’s a lot there. In one sense, you were then building up a lot of self-reliance. I think maybe in response to your mother’s dependency. It seemed to me that you wanted to be financially independent, the considerable talents that you were home with your craft. These produced a kind of success, obviously. There was always this dissociation where you were not quite sure who you were.
As an actor, you’re stranded with other actors that become your whole social circle. Your whole world. You lose yourself in the bar again. So, there was a lot of me that really wondered, the happiest Valentine’s Day to you and finding love at 65. Part of me wondered if you had been ready before then? In what ways were you not ready before then?
Melanie: It is luck of the draw, Diane. I felt I was ready a lot sooner but I hadn’t come across men that I preferred. I don’t go to bars. I wasn’t leaving the house all that much because I was having a long hiatus between work. I was in therapy for 20 years. I had a wonderful woman, a really strong woman who really guided me, tell me that the silences between her and me are such a simple element of the therapy. I didn’t have to perform for her.
If she didn’t smile and give me approval or applause, why would I discern that she was disapproving? When she was quiet, I think she was judging me. In that Tabula Raisa, it became very clear that I suggested that I had to protect myself by performing in every interaction, especially in the quiet. In my household of origin, the silence was very dangerous. There was so much roiling beneath the surface.
In these 20 years of therapy, I learned that in the silence there could be my own level of self, even if the other person in the room with me didn’t love me. I could feel it with my own self-love. That simple equation projected a great period of discovery for me. I saw all the projections I made about other people and what I had to do to manipulate, or counter them, or manipulate myself to get their approval.
Diane: It’s like a lens opens up that wasn’t there before. We have just a couple of minutes till we need to take a commercial break. If you’re working in theater and the audience is right there and you’re aware of every response and their reactions, how could you not become so attuned to approval? How performance anxiety just strikes me as an absolutely natural outcome to that? But as you say, self-love may be trite.
Let’s get it to be so trite that we don’t even need to say it anymore. That’s the thing that I really thought about when Stan came into your life. You had gotten to that point where you were filling the silences, and the gaps, and the periods of no reinforcement with the love of your own. That is really the key. It’s the only love you can have forever.
It’s just wonderful that you arrived at that destination. You also talk about meeting your lines. If you’re going to be a girlfriend, you have mastered that role. How are you going to be a wife and looking for guidance for your lines and for the dimensions of your character that you were going to play? How is it to be now playing yourself?
Melanie: It’s much better. All those characters that ever played are still in me. They were all facets of a woman. I have to say I play a lot of neurotic characters, early on. As time went on, I evolved into playing mother characters. Usually, there was a quirk. The writers would bring to a role and I would fulfill. I got to play more married women. I think it was a turning point. I did a guest star thing with Kirk Douglas on a show called Touched by an Angel.
In this show, I had a husband and a son. I never felt more capable of being a mother and a wife than I did in accessing those aspects of myself in that show. I was a mother watching her husband dying and had to comfort my son and be heroic. That role really gave me something. I know it was not an illustrious role by any means but for me, it was really formative.
Diane: It’s very cool how that can inform your real life, taking on the dimensions and the character that helps you and informs this role for your real life. Kirk Douglas, “If he doesn’t do it, no one’s going to do it.” I’m sure that interaction is so great. We are going to pause for a commercial break. When we come back, we’re going to pick up a thread you just mentioned and that is the writing career of Melanie Chartoff. Where’s that going to lead? Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or comment about the show, send us an email to email@example.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Melanie Chartoff. It is a real pleasure to speak with you, Melanie. We’re making that segue from acting to writing. You do both which is just such an interesting transition for me. Acting seems to involve the external and awareness of the external wind. Writing is solitary. It comes from the inside out. I wondered if you like to talk about this difference between material in your script and inner substance. How are you bringing those together? How do they shape your identity?
Melanie: It’s a long story. I started writing when I was young. It was thought that I would be a writer. I had poetry published in the New Haven register. I wrote a play called the Queen’s New Dress that was put on in my fourth-grade class and other communities came to see it. I guess I was afraid to be alone. I found the joy of ensemble work, which is my forte. I love being in an ensemble. I feel lonely being a star all alone on the stage.
Being in an ensemble with other gifted performers is my joy. I needed the ensemble because I didn’t have a family. So, theater for me became a community. It was almost like a temple, the theater for me. I got a sense of reverence and awe. When I walked into a theater-like one might get at a church or synagogue, it was that kind of feeling that something magical happened here. If everybody believed and had faith in the same story, we could create something just magical.
So, I fell away from writing as I matured because I was having a great deal of success. There were times when I was doing 2 series at one time and I was being driven from one to the other set. Those are the glory days. Those are the days of saving up money and having some authority over which way my career went. In my 50s, as happens for so many women, I was a regular in a Television Series and then that faded away when I was in my early 50s. Suddenly, loneliness hit. I decided to go online and start dating and just start writing.
I began to get published mostly humor pieces and get paid a little bit of money. I got a sense that I would not be making as much money on these little writing expeditions as I had as an actor, but it was okay with me. I learned to be alone in a room with my imagination which was no longer my enemy. It has become my friend. I began to harness it, utilizing all the emotional refinements I had developed as an actor, going to where the pain was, and twisting it oftentimes into comedy. I began to get such pleasure from this.
It wasn’t so much about the immediate gratification of having applause in the room. There was this pleasure of knowing that certain minds would immerse themselves in these stories and go on the journey. I was emotional, sad or happy, silly or poignant. They might have an experience one on one with me like the large audience might have one on 100 in a theater. That became really pleasurable for me. It became its own reward as I began to get published more in Chicken Soup for the Soul. They published three of my stories now. They’ve been a wonderful place for me to put stuff.
A lot of these other literary magazines. I have more ideas than I could contain in this book, Diane. I’m currently making a book of Corona poems, dealing with realizations. I’ve had some black comics, some very elegant over this last year. I’m sure a lot of writing is going to come out of this period. I have a lot of black comet poems and really intimate poems about what it’s like being alone with yourself without the stimulation of society, on anything but virtual platforms.
Diane: I’m excited that you’re writing. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I love that you use the word intimate because there is such intimacy to writing. It is an exchange of energy, emotion just that it occurs in the imaginary plane, in the plane that we can’t see. It’s not necessarily tangible but it is when people communicate with you through your writing and have gotten in touch. I felt that I’d gotten closer in touch with myself after having read your book, Odd Woman Out. That’s a real gift.
Melanie: That’s a great compliment. That’s wonderful.
Diane: I’m not kidding. Speaking about these COVID times, I’m so glad you’re writing poetry. Also, I think you have a great economy with words and not surprised at all that poetry and the rhythm of it is something that you’re attracted to is that some of it areis elegiac about these times. But then, there’s the humor and let’s be real, which you keep real throughout. This was the first time that your husband, your newly married husband, had heard you fart. I think to myself that is the problem with being cooped up like this.
Everyone hears everything. If we weren’t going to be real before we’re now, we’re now forced to be it. Let’s talk about the role of humor. At some point, you have a lot of fluidity between tragedy, comedy, heartbreaking scenarios, and comedy, and you’re gifted as a comedian. How is that device for you? Is comedy something that you once used as a kind of defense? Does it open up to you now in a different way? How is it for you now?
Melanie: There’s a lot more depth perception. As we age, we experience the suffering of others, so much more profoundly in our own suffering as well. Certainly, it was a coping mechanism. As a child in our household, if my sister and I could make my parents laugh, they would stop quarreling and the tension would dissipate for a while. I equated laughter with love. If I could make people laugh, I felt like I had a good hand on their hearts so they would respond to me more favorably than if I was just a mean person or a downer.
That device sort of stayed in me, early on to defend myself against the pogrom and Holocaust mentalities, genetic mentalities of my family. Later, when the trauma was happening to me, I was usually able to periscope my brain up and see this from another point of view that somewhat saved me like witnessing from an elevated perspective which is something all comedians do. It helps me witness some of the stuff that was happening for me. Now, dissociation is not always a healthy thing. For me, it was helpful, using comedy as a disassociated technique.
Diane: It protects you, right? It protects you from hurt. It protects you from things that might happen otherwise.
Melanie: I had two minds or three minds and a lot of fraught situations. I could see it from several perspectives and that gave me a real headache as I started to mature. I didn’t want to contain that many points of view at the same time. I think being in therapy for those 20 years helped me unify a perspective. So, I only think of my own point of view.
Diane: I hope so. I’m glad to hear you say that in this integration, in this unity because when poor Stan proposed to you in the bathtub, and you were wearing a shower cap and your glasses, you thought it might be a stick. I had to grab the edge of the day. I was just like, “Oh, my God. You can’t marry a poor guy.” You’re sitting there. You’re in the bathtub with him. You’re thinking this is like a put-on.
In one way, it’s very sad because you were at the point where you had to bring it all together. You didn’t know what was real. As far as I know, Stan is not an actor. Also, he’s an incredibly sensitive guy like he wouldn’t be doing that. But then, there were like these 19 conversations going on in your head. What is it about? Which is it? I’m just glad to hear Melanie that you’ve been able to drop into yourself to a place where you can hear one voice if that’s what you choose. That was a hard-won victory.
Melanie: It is a very hard one. As part of the disruption there, I have been more unilateral in my point of view but being with my mom always sends me back. I reverted back because we pushed each other’s buttons that particular evening. I suddenly presumed where I was seeing through the crystal. There were so many different angles and what I was going through. That story, the love-bap does show the mind of a crazy person. I was especially disappointed because I had been so healthy for the previous year’s straight. It was really being around mom that triggered me into that fracture, again.
Diane: It’s like the dreaded holidays where we’ve had a great year, feel together and whole, and then we get home, and then boom. It’s just all over. That evolves over time, too. When you look at the words that you wrote or you’re listening to your audiobook which is fantastic, do you see it differently? Does it morph differently? Like the scene with your mother where she told you, “You’re still dyeing your hair.” This is when your new boyfriend is there. It’s hard to go there, right? We’ll say this is just where she’s coming from and all this different stuff, but has it changed for you over time and now that you see the words?
Melanie: Everything that we did yesterday is the past. Since I developed this book and finished it in March with this epilogue about Coronavirus, I’ve grown even more. I mean, don’t you look back at the film on yourself or at tapes of yourself and say, “Oh, I’m so much wiser than I was last week.” I think I look at all this and I say, “Well, I got that off my chest, and let’s see what I can become now.” So, reading the book to me, it’s the past. In March, when I wrote the Corona poem was the past. I’m looking forward to what I evolved into as a writer now. I won’t be plumbing the depths of my own life quite so much. I’ll be inventing new stories.
I’m excited about that part. I haven’t hit writer’s block yet. There are some mornings when I wake up and I think, “Oh, I have no talent today. I’m just going to go back to bed.” But most times, I wake up and I have so many ideas that I don’t know which to juice up first. I still want to ask. I don’t want to go down that I don’t want to ask. I’ve been doing some zoom plays which feel wonderful in lieu of actually having theater or film to participate in. I’m so glad I’ve proven myself by writing the book.
Diane: A life coach guy, Rock Thomas, who says, “You got to ride that not enoughness like it’s a stallion.” So, that whole enoughness thing, just ride it to the point where it is such a motivator to see what we can actually achieve. As you say, prove to ourselves. The past gets a bad rap like you’re not supposed to dwell on the past but it’s making us. It’s making our future.
Toni Morrison said, “As writers, what we do is remember and to remember this world is to create it.” I’m super psyched that you’re going to go in different directions because you’ve got a vast imagination and a kind of zany humor. Do you feel that you’re going to hit any walls in terms of ageism? Is that something that’s alive and well these days? How is that?
Melanie: Certainly, in Hollywood, it’s alive and well. Most of the films and streaming television shows we see feature men but there’s a little bit of a turning around now. The Black Lives Matter movement has done a lot for women, now that there’s an inclusionary feeling and feminism that these women are sisters and they have suffered untold miseries. Their stories are important. In terms of older women, Diane Keaton will continue to work, Candace Burden will continue to work, Meryl will continue, Diane Wizz who’s one of my idols will continue to work. A lot of us get left behind.
There are many series regulars from shows you may have loved in the 80s and 90s who are lying fallow because they’re too charismatic to just play bit parts and shows and they’re not famous enough or powerful enough to star in movies when Kansas Bergen is available. So, I am part of a painful society that is learning how to do things for itself. There are more and more women producing which is great. There are more and more women writing their intimate stories. There are more and more female comedians that let it all hang out, terrific stand-up. I was thinking about Eve Enzler in this respect. Do you remember Eve Ensler?
Diane: Sure. The Vagina Monologues.
Melanie: Yes. The Vagina Monologues back at the turn of the millennium for a long while. She brought the vagina out of the closet and started saying, “What is so dirty about this body part?” Her show was just pivotal politically for so much of society. It suddenly became permissible to discuss these things. A lot of women are exposing themselves today. I owe it to her to open that barrier. I do a lot of stage readings. There’s a wonderful playwright called Eugene Pak who writes great roles for older women. I’ve been fortunate to be in an ensemble of wonderful people. I just did a play with Cheryl Strong a couple of weeks ago.
That’s just fun for the Actors Fund. It’s actually running online in repertory with a bunch of other plays, with a bunch of other terrific actors. I’m definitely going to keep asserting myself as an actor. I’m doing a place for Purim, a Jewish holiday, and for Passover, and the weeks to come. It feels like, “Oh, no. This is the life I want.” It is to have happily married to my loves, writing and acting all in tandem, and alternately, I also teach Diane.
I teach socially awkward folks how to make themselves more stellar on virtual platforms and in real life, too. I coach people all over the world and in China, in Australia, and Detroit. When people are in need, they find me. I don’t advertise too much but the right people find me when they need this kind of urge. I find the internet is ideal because it has a microphone and has cameras so people learn to get comfortable with the cold lens of the camera.
Diane: That’s true. We weren’t before. We didn’t have that exposure and finding voices was tremendous. Well, how do people find you? What’s the best way to find you, Melanie? I’d love to hear about how to find a play online. We just have a moment before a break. What’s the best way to find you, Melanie Chartoff?
Melanie: Melaniechartoff.com is my actor and credit website. I have a very active Facebook page on which I post everything I’m doing. Every week, there are bulletins about stuff I’m involved in. Tonight, I’m in a show called Story Smash, which is on YouTube and I’m one of the judges. I think of a comedy competition. It’s a blast. It’s like a game show. I’m very honored to be part of that.
Story Smashes on it seven on the West Coast. Sunday, I’m going to a Valentine’s Day presentation which features my book. You can also go to charismatizing.com, charisma with T-I-Z-I-N-G.com. Reach me if you’re interested in some coaching or talking about how we might work on whatever pitch, whatever book, whatever idea you’re selling, and how to make you the best person to be a spokesperson for it.
Diane: Well, I would feel safe in your hand. When we come back from the break, we’re going to talk a little bit about fame, the distorted lens that it creates, and how fame is a little bit the cart before the horse these days. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back with Melanie Chartoff.
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You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or comment about the show, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. Now, back to Dropping In.
Diane: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Melanie Chartoff. Melanie, you are breaking barriers. We talked a little bit about being an influencer. You don’t have to be young to be one. It feels as though because you are an ensemble cast member that you are interested in bringing others along.
That’s something very different from some of the singularity of fame and how it affects people. Just talk to us a little bit about how fame worked for you. It wasn’t always positive. It wasn’t even always healthy. There’s also the fundamental problem of what to do with it when others can’t cope with that. How’s that working now?
Melanie: Well, now it’s okay. I’m not as illustrious as I was in my youth. I have a kind of a quieter presence in terms of people knowing who I am. They know me from my Facebook posts. They know me from my voice in ribbons on the Rugrats cartoon series. So, my face and my body are not well known as well-known in this era. I don’t have to worry about what I look like when I go outside.
First of all, I’m wearing a mask. I don’t have to do my hair, wear makeup, or wear a bra. I can kind of just go out as I feel not worried that I’m going to be photographed everywhere. There was a period where celebrities were very scrutinized by paparazzi everywhere they went. I do have a story in the book about having to go to the Hustler store to buy a product for medical reasons and getting photographs coming out of there. Not in Hustler, in Star magazine which everybody in the grocery line saw.
So, I’m not as worried about that kind of exposure. People are less interested in looking at me these days because I’m older. I’m not on this series to hit visible primetime series right now, very few of us are actually so it’s easier. When I was younger, I had friends who were not famous. When I first arrived in Los Angeles, there were old friends and new ones. When I would get this celebrity and success there was a lot of resentment from friends who are actors, who have not worked.
It’s a terrible thing to have your success make other people feel bad. In my own family, my mother was uncomfortable with me. She would giggle and glaze over. When I was around, she’d been watching me too much on television and not seeing me in real life. I guess. It was difficult. It was a lot of estrangement, alienation, and a lot of loneliness until I made more friends who are successful, who all understood what it was like to suddenly step out of your society and be very visible.
Diane: To be a known person. Why is that so thought to be such an evil thing? If you do a really good job, when you are a physician or something, then that’s okay. But if you seek out the limelight or you find yourself at a news conference having to field questions like Anthony Falchi, that makes you the complete lightning rod. What is it about our psyches that don’t give permission, don’t celebrate the idea of stepping into the limelight like that?
Melanie: If you’re using the limelight just for self-aggrandizement, it’s suspect, people feel resentful. But these days, I think that all the famous people I know who are stepping into the limelight, are taking their causes with them or taking their philanthropies with them. It’s a whole different consciousness now about that. I think the days of Paris Hilton or folks that were just trying to get attention for being beautiful or being famous, or being rich, are passing us by.
There is a segment of society that will always respond to that. One, it’s a picture. One, its autograph, wants to buy its product. At least in my society, there’s not a lot of judgment about it. It depends. Tom Hanks is kind of the master of making his position as an actor and a humanitarian, very loud and unthreatening in the world. He is so gifted and yet he’s such a good guy. He’s such a nice guy. You feel better in all of his interviews.
I think there are a lot of performers and actors that have that kind of good man quality or good woman quality. They’re toiling away in the trenches working behind the scenes to produce films for women to contribute to causes of breast cancer research, poverty, and the ability to read. A lot of people I know are carrying on with these causes. I grant them that limelight. I think it’s wonderful.
Diane: There’s more substance to it. I agree with you that that’s the value of the shallow fame for its own sake who really has passed us. I think that in this eye guys that is really like over. It’s a wonderful thing. It also shows the heart of the person. It is maybe less alienating. Yes, everyone wants to know how to be self-effacing and fabulous at the same time like Tom Hanks does. You also mentioned there’s more depth of feeling as we get older, maybe just as time goes on and we face crisis after crisis.
Maybe there’s a response to that and people realizing we can’t afford to sit it out anymore, either. Comedians and female comedians, this is just near and dear to my heart. Although, I’m shocked that when you said love is not humor anymore, I’m really very devastated by that still. It’s female comedians. They’re really having a moment. You write very funny material. Would you like to see your book acted? What do you think about doing more comedic work? What does that look like for you?
Melanie: Well, I love bittersweet. I’m suspicious of a happy ending. So, it’s like when there’s a drop of acid in the joy because it seems much more realistic to me coming from a depressive family in history. My favorite stuff that makes me laugh and cry is Patton Oswald, as an example. I don’t know if you know his specials or his stand-up work. His wife passed away some years ago. It was tragic. It was sudden. They had a new little daughter.
He turned that material into more of a one-man show than just the stand-up comedy act. He makes you laugh your ass off, but at the same time, tells us a very poignant story about having to become the sole parent to this little girl. He tells hilarious stories about the way people express sympathy. Even Dave Chappelle, whom I’m a big fan of, has brought a lot more serious social commentary in his work, not as funny as he was. Even David Sedaris, whom I also adore. His last books are not quite so silly anymore.
It makes me laugh out loud reading alone in a room when I read his early books. But the last few books are more about his relationship, the passing of his parents and his sister. There was only one big laugh about a cow in his most recent book. I think that the nature of comedy is changing. They’ll always be Larry David who just makes incredible social commentary using himself as a sacrificial lamb, showing what misanthropic attitudes are, trying to break the rules, trying to get a free lunch.
I just think it’s changing. We’re using ourselves differently now as comedians. In terms of stand-up, I don’t think I’ll do it anymore. It wasn’t a big success because I couldn’t do jokes very well. There’s a lot of funny moments in my book but they usually come out of a fraud scene painting it. That didn’t fit in my comedy stand-up. As you stand up, I did a character, kind of daffy female characters, kind of sending up the dumb blonde characters. But there’s never a monologist who could do the Carson show with my best 10 minutes. I was never that kind of comedian. I’ll just keep writing.
I have done a musical version of this book called Odd Woman Out. I did some years ago. It was commissioned by the Joshua Tree Comedy Festival. That’s how I decided to develop this into a book. An agent said to me, “This is a book. This is literary. This is spiritual. It’s not just a musical, it has to be a book.” So, that was the cue I took into sitting down to actually writing it instead of jumping around on the stage dancing and singing.
Diane: The bittersweet that requires a kind of dialogue and interaction. You said yourself, you’re not the person that wants to stand up there by yourself. The bittersweet does require interaction with other characters, real-life characters. This idea that we’re coming into maybe a more somber way of being funny. It was always about sex and death.
Those are the funniest subjects somehow but there’s some other tinge to it. I think that you’re onto something there. So, we’ll look forward to seeing and hearing Odd Woman Out when it comes out. It is a musical but we look forward to future iterations of it. I must ask you. Do you still feel the odd woman out?
Melanie: Do I now? It depends on the room I’m in. Most of my friends are odd now. So, I think we all fit quite nicely together. One of the things you asked a second ago, Diane. I just want to say that I do visualize my book as short-like films as if it were on Modern Love which is the New York Times developed column every week. They have a Sunday Show, which has Modern Love. It talks about love at this age. I would very much love my stories to be part of an anthology show like that. That’s a dream.
Diane: It would be well deserving. I think that the fact that a teaspoon of sugar helps the medicine go down. These texts with Stan who we love because of his embrace of you and as well, he should. It does lend itself to this kind of anecdotal, the piercing in the heart. I’m glad to hear that there’s going to be life beyond this Odd Woman Out. I really recommend that everyone. Read it. Listen to it. Listen to Melanie’s voice.
Listen to the way that you encourage others, Melanie, and help to coach others, bringing the rest of your ensemble along. It’s very inspirational. I know you probably don’t like that, just that word. It’s inspirational, grounding, centering, and it keeps you it real. Thanks so much for being here, Melanie Chartoff. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. Thanks to our engineers, Matt Wiegner and Aaron Keller, to our executive producer, Robert Chellino, and most of all, to our listeners. Remember to stay safe this week and keep it real. Till next week. Thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 am Pacific time and 11 am Eastern time on The Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.