Alibi V.28 No.5 • Jan 31-Feb 6, 2019 

Arts Interview

The Marvelous Mrs. Meyer

Famous author finds new career in comedy at age 83

Carolyn Meyer
Russell Maynor Photography

After sweeping the Emmy Awards with 14 nominations and 8 wins last year, the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is back in 2019 with three Golden Globe nominations and one win. The show, inspired loosely by the life of comedian Joan Rivers, tells the story of a wealthy and witty ’50s Jewish housewife who throws off the shackles of domesticity and jumps into a new life as a stand-up comedian in New York City after her scandalous divorce.

The appeal of Mrs. Maisel comes in part from the show’s relentless optimism, and relatively easy and stylish female empowerment. Mrs. Maisel wanted to do comedy, and she did. Bam. Simple. Or, as Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review of the series for The New Yorker: “ … the production landed at an ideal moment, tapping into a desperation—particularly among women—for something sweet and inspiring. No more ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ no more pussy-grabbing. ‘Mrs. Maisel’ offered a bright-pink escape hatch from 2017.”

It is difficult in this broader cultural context, then, to ignore the similarities between the fictional Mrs. Maisel and the very real Carolyn Meyer, the newest and most unusual rising star on Albuquerque’s robust comedy scene.

Born in 1935, just two years after Rivers (whose “meanspirited and racist” comedy Meyer doesn’t care for, by the way) Meyer has spent the past 50 years working in relative solitude, as a prolific and award-winning novelist. She is one of the most successful authors in New Mexico, with more than 50 published children’s historical novels, including a new one out next year about Georgia O’Keeffe. Many of her books are required reading in schools across the nation.

After the death of her third husband, writer and University of New Mexico professor emeritus of English Tony Mares, four years ago, Meyer decided it was time for something new.

“I just needed to get out of the house,” she said. “I needed to be around people, and try something I’d never done before.”

That something was improvisational theater, also known as improv. Meyer, who lives in an elegant contemporary loft Downtown, registered for an improv class nearby, at The Box Performance Space.

“I was terrified,” she said. “At 81 I was by far the oldest person there. We didn’t have any of the same references. We might as well have been speaking different languages.”

Nonetheless, her lifetime of storytelling came in handy, and almost immediately her teacher Michael Lovato said he noticed Meyer had a rare gift for the craft. “Michael has been so supportive and encouraging,” said Meyer. “He’s really been wonderful.”

Soon after, Meyer met Jaime Pardo, a local tailor and drag entertainer who saw her perform. Pardo suggested Meyer would be a good fit for a new interactive game held monthly at Empire Board Game Library, called “Liar’s Game,” in which three people tell a crowd a story, and they crowd has to guess which of them is lying.

“Well, wouldn’t you know, I discovered I was very good at lying,” said Meyer, with her characteristic mix of humor and humility. “But that’s a job hazard of being a fiction writer for five decades, I suppose.”

From there, Meyer branched out and began attending comedy open mics in town, most frequently the Sunday night open mic at Boese Brothers Brewery Downtown. She felt Boese to be more welcoming than some of the others, because a woman, Elena Warden, hosted it, alongside Tito Dameron.

“It’s a boys’ club everywhere else,” said Meyer. She had some pointed things to say about the male dominated comedy circles in town, but asked they be kept out of the newspaper for propriety’s sake. She did, however, allow us to share her rhetorical question: “How is it that every single one of these boys enjoys talking about his dick so much?”

Statistics confirm Meyer’s impression of Albuquerque’s comedy scene as mostly a boys’ club. According to Kevin Kennedy, who books many of the local comedy shows, there are only 7 top-level female comics in town vying for bookings, versus 90 males, with the vast majority of these all being in their 20s or 30s. Meyer “is definitely unusual,” he said.

Watching Meyer take the microphone at Boese one recent Sunday evening was an interesting affair, as the young people in the crowd shift uncomfortably in their seats and exchange looks of bewilderment. You could almost hear their thoughts: What the hell is this old lady doing here? This is weird.

But as soon as Meyer launched into her bit, a palpable relief and shock rippled through the audience as she told jokes about porn, Tinder, oral sex and politics. There was this wide-eyed surprise among those who were being confronted for the first time with the possibility that a petite woman in her 80s, wearing sensible outfits that seem plucked from an L.L. Bean catalog, could not only be as funny as some young dude joking about his dick (and Meyer is right, they pretty much all do this), but she can brilliantly meet them on their own turf, and then sweetly annihilate them.

“Carolyn is an old lady, but she certainly isn’t old-fashioned,” said fellow open-mic regular Troy Willson, who himself has been banned from at least one venue because of his misogynistic jokes, including one about raping grandmothers. Interestingly, the resistance to Willson has come mostly from other male comedians, including John Cuellar, who hosts the open mic on Saturdays at Back Alley Draft House, and Marty Adamsmith, whom Meyer cites as one of her favorite local comics. Meyer, meanwhile, does not take issue with Willson’s approach at all, citing free speech. “Poor little thing,” she said of Willson. “He’s just finding his way. He’ll be all right.”

In Meyer, young female comics in town say they have found a gutsy mama bear and friend, one who regularly has other women comics over for dinner, wine and conversation.

“I think Carolyn is a delight,” says comedian Hollyanne Byrd, one of the hosts of the podcast 10 Drink Minimum. “My favorite thing about her is the way that she knows exactly how people are going to react to her dirty stuff. Her timing is excellent especially in that regard.”

Meyer said that her raunchy comedy, often with feminist underpinnings, upsets men of all ages, and has even made her dating life difficult.

“I’m on match.com,” she said. “And one guy I was talking with on there, who was thrilled about my books, you know, and saw me as this real smart lady, he really let me have it after I sent him a link to my comedy. He said ‘How can a woman your age be saying these things in public? You need to keep these things to yourself.’ I was, like, fat chance. So, that was the end of that.”

Meyer said her newfound expressive freedom has also been tough on her three adult sons. “Well, you know, it’s not easy for them to watch their mother go up on stage to talk about giving blow jobs,” she said. “I sympathize with them. But is it going to shut me up? Nope.”

This month, Meyer steps into yet another new realm with her comedy, as she continues growing in the art form, with her first one-woman show, “Don’t Call Me Young Lady!,” opening at The Cell Theatre. The one-hour show, based mostly on Meyer’s own life and adventures with her three husbands and three serious boyfriends, all but one of whom are dead now (and the living one is in hiding, she said, in Guatemala), will run on three consecutive Sundays (Feb. 10, 17 and 24) starting at 4pm. Tickets cost $15.

Meyer said she has found her passion. “I’m done with writing books,” she said. “I like being in front of a crowd. This is it, now. Comedy is everything.”