Michael: Before the pandemic, Megan Stalter was an unknown comedian doing comedy shows all over the place, trying to get a break in acting and posting an occasional video on Twitter and TikTok. Once the pandemic hit, those videos became her only outlet. Stalter began producing them at a rapid clip, very short character sketches, and with everybody at home on the internet way too much, she started to find a big audience racking up millions of views. On social media, she became known as the queen of quarantine.
Megan Stalter: April 10th, 2:00 PM Central standard time, I had just got back from an amazing date. I went to Red Lobster last night and in between the cheddar bay biscuits, I kissed the waiter, and then I got invited back into the kitchen to kiss all the chefs.
Michael: It shot on her phone and the props and costumes are whatever she can find around the house. Her characters embody the full spectrum of socially awkward and clueless. Suddenly Stalter jumped from the internet to television as the worst assistant in the world on HBO's Hit Show Hacks.
Jimmy: Kayla, you're supposed to be on mute.
Kayla: Oh, I am. I just pushed the thing bud.
Jimmy: Okay, but we can hear you, so you're definitely not.
Kayla: Oh, don't worry I'm not listening. I'm laughing at a meme.
Jimmy: You're supposed to be listening. We've talked about this. You listen and you take notes, right?
Kayla: Yes. Okay. Where's my notebook. Hey, I need to leave early, I have an adult ballet recital like just I can't miss this one, because I missed last week, it just wouldn't make sense.
Michael: Michael Schulman is a staff writer who covers Culture for The New Yorker and he's one of the many new fans of Megan Stalter.
Michael Schulman: Am I getting it right that Hacks is your first professional acting job proper-
Michael: -or were you doing other stuff? Yes, you just went from like nothing to HBO Max Huge Comedy Hit.
Megan: I couldn't be more lucky. I can't believe it. That's like my first time on set. That's the first time I was ever had a professional acting job and I haven't even done a commercial.
Michael: Hacks, for people who are not caught up on it, it centers on this old school, Vegas headliner comedian named Deborah Vance played by the truly amazing Jean Smart who hires a 20 something comedian named Ava, played by Hannah Einbinder to punch up her act and be her assistant. You play Kayla who is an essential part of the show. Can you describe who Kayla is?
Megan: Ava has this manager and Kayla is the manager's assistant and she's a bad assistant.
Jimmy: Kayla? What is in this coffee?
Kayla: Half and half in sugar. Well, Splenda.
Kayla: A couple of Splendas.
Jimmy: That's not sugar it's all chemicals and I take natural sugar.
Kayla: Brain F-A-R-T. [laughs] Is your phone ringing or something?
Jimmy: I don't know, let's find out.
Megan: She's party fashionista, silly, rich girl whose dad owns the company, so she has this privilege and power.
Jimmy: Hi, hello?
Kayla: Daddy. Daddy's at work.
Speaker 6: How's my baby girl doing?
Jimmy: She's unbelievable, really special. Special.
Megan: She sees Jimmy as they're like equals even though Jimmy is her boss. I think she sees them as like co-workers and she lives in her own world and doesn't even realize how privileged she is.
Michael: She's what the internet would now call a "nepo baby".
Megan: Yes, absolutely.
Michael: Hacks is very much about this generational divide in comedy with Deborah Vance representing the old school punchline, heavy, Joan Rivers school of comedy, and then Ava is the less crowd-pleasing, more jagged millennial gen-Z kind of comedy. I'm curious if you see your own work in those terms? If you feel like you're on one side or the other of that divide?
Megan: My hope is always that my stuff could be understood by people of all ages. I feel like I draw a lot from like older comedians anyway. A sort of like one-woman show in the '80s. I don't know. Like an older woman doing a Vegas-style one-woman show is my inspiration. I like performing for people that-- I don't know. At least I like to hope that people of all ages can be on the inside of the joke.
I love Hacks because I feel like there's something for everyone in the show. Paul was saying that a lot of times people tell him like, "Oh, this is the show I can watch with my mom and she loves it too." Comedy is so subjective, but any sort of art that's not including or alienating a huge group of people I just would rather not. I would rather not alienate any age group or like type of person. I feel like Hacks is something that people of all ages and gender would be into because there's something for everyone in it.
Michael: How did you start performing? Was there a spark where you felt, "Oh, I have to be on that stage"?
Megan: I really never remember not wanting to perform. I can't ever remember a time I wasn't making videos. When I was little, we always liked making videos, me and my siblings and my cousins. Anytime there was like a talent show or a Christmas pageant, I'd be desperate to be in it. I remember my choir teacher gave me a solo for the Christmas pageant and I just practiced the song over and over and over again.
It was just probably two lines of the solo, but I was so like, "Oh my God, I just really needed to be on stage." I do think that I've always been weird, freaky, silly. I definitely didn't fit in high school, besides drama club and I auditioned for everything, and I would research the role and I would prepare a lot. I never got the parts that I wanted probably ever, but I did play Hellen Keller's Mom in The Miracle Worker. I didn't even get that part. I was an understudy and then they let me have it because the lead dropped out or something.
Megan: Yes, but that was probably my shining role, she had lines at least. After high school I didn't have any money saved to move to LA or New York and we don't come from money. I just went to different community college programs and all I really wanted to do was perform, but I just couldn't even see away. Then finally after trying a bunch of different things like teaching, nursing, missions church work, I did Bible school.
Michael: You did?
Megan: Yes, I was really involved in my church and I was like, "Well, if I can't do what I really want to do, then maybe God wants me to choose something that's helpful, but a job where I know I'm can make money after college."
Michael: Pre-pandemic what was your life like? Can you just describe what you were doing, state of your career, of your life, where you were living? What was going on?
Megan: I had just moved to New York six or seven months before the pandemic. I was having the time of my life on different shows every night and I was like, "Oh, this is the dream. This is the New York dream." I think that's when I first started getting any traction online. I do remember right before the pandemic, my first couple of videos that had ever gone, not viral but a lot of people were watching it more than normal for me. I think one video was I was playing-- it was like woman in the movie who almost hooks up with the lead before he goes off to find his real true love or something like that.
Michael: Oh, I remember that one.
Megan: Tim, we don't have to do this. You're a good guy and you're in love with somebody and it's not me. Go get her, I'll be okay. I have blonde hair, I'm fine. Go get her.
I was like, "Oh my God, wow, I'm really doing it. I'm in New York and I'm doing these shows at night and I'm like, people are watching my stuff online. Then I think the real attention came with the pandemic. It really changed everything and it was not focusing on trying to get people to see it, to be honest. I just was doing these really crazy themed Instagram lives overnight, because I was so alone and I was like, this is a fun way to feel connected or even posting stuff. I'm like, "Oh, this is like a creative outlet because we can't perform live right now", and it was really scary and sad for me. I was just trying to stay afloat, I was just trying to not lose my mind. It was so scary, but then things were happening for me too online.
Michael: It's this weird combination of like horrible moment for the world, good time for Meg's career. I want to look at one of the videos that went really viral during the pandemic. This was from June of 2021. It was a video for Pride Month.
Cecily: Hi gay. Happy pride month. We're sashaying away with deals. This month at the butter shop, we're running a special deal. If you can prove that you're queer, you got three pints off your choice of creamed, chugged, or drowned better. We love gay. It's awesome.
That video, it was like, I literally was like rushing out the door. It was Pride Month, and I've just seen so many ads just from places that would never normally do like a Pride thing. It just was like, I don't know, something clicked where it was like, "God, that would be so funny."
We have been making butter since 1945. We've been accepting all people since the last four months. Yes, we're gagging for you to come take a taste Cecily's butter to chop-- at Cecily's Butter Shop. My friend's mom, I think is gay. We think it's cool.
Michael: It's obviously a great satire of how companies co-opt the language of Pride to sell products during June. To me, what's so funny about this that it's more than that. It's like you see this character who is just so unused to being on camera, just trying and failing to be presentable and pull this off.
Megan: The whole thing, I'm reading off the computer, so all of what I said was written, but I think it was, I normally do like to improv with the videos, but that one I was like, "It'd be funny if it looks scripted and looks like I'm reading off a script." I think what I'm like drawn to when people watching or getting inspired to do a character, is people that are really fully themselves out loud. They're different than everyone else, but they are so themselves that it doesn't matter what other people think of them.
Michael: Well, there's something about your characters that they represent the breadth of American idiocy. There's this one video I love where you play a woman in her car who has just been to Starbucks and is so outraged.
Megan: [laughs] Yes.
I'm stopping right in my tracks. Yes, she goes, "Yes, Happy Halloween." "Happy Halloween. That's what we're saying." She goes, "Yes, happy, spooky season." I say, "Oh, well, the only thing spooky to me is the fact that y'all are celebrating the most wicked holiday. Yet, when I come over here, in December 11th, when I come over here, December 24th, for my Christmas Eve drink, all I hear is all I get is." "Happy holiday." Happy holidays. Happy holidays, we're neutral, we're neutral. Happy holidays."
Michael: Of course, we all have followed these people who get outraged about the war on Christmas or whatever. In a way, online culture has just opened up-- has made everyone a kind of on-camera performer. You do really capture the sense that so many people are performing for the camera, nowadays who just aren't up for it. You can see them trying and failing. It's like, we're all performers now.
Megan: Right? Everyone feels this pressure. Everybody wants to be famous or go viral. It's fun to make fun of and to explore, like, why do people feel that way? Why do people feel the pressure to do that? That's what's so funny about these front-facing video characters because, like that video, a lot of people thought was real. That's what's so funny.
Michael: [laughs] Really?
Megan: Yes, I think my favorite characters to a watcher are people that feel real, even if they're like bonkers, they just feel like "Oh, well, I know that woman." Like that churchwoman, even though she was saying crazy things about the Starbucks employee and celebrating Halloween. She's so real.
Michael: What kind of things were people saying on Twitter who thought it was real?
Megan: People were upset with her, this character, and was saying, "Wow, like, I don't think a Christian should be yelling. at a [laughs] barista, or like, you're not the real kind of Christian." Or like, "I don't think God would like that." The other thing is I really liked the low quality of the videos because it almost feels like the person's even more real because it's like they filmed it themselves. The fun thing is you can prank people because people don't if they don't follow you. There's so much of that content now online that you can put yours up and people think you're serious, and that's really a part of the joke for me.
Michael: Megan Stalter spoke at The New Yorker's Michael Schulman. You can see her in hacks and the new series Queer as Folk. A reboot, which premieres in June. You can read Michael Schulman at newyorker.com.
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