'Life is short' so comedian Mary Cella takes the stage
Pittsfield native's comedy helped her cope with mother's loss
PITTSFIELD — When one of Mary Cella's bits doesn't land during a stand-up performance, she doesn't ditch it right away. Instead, the comedian considers whether it would work better as a written piece.
"Often, something I'll submit to The New Yorker — a lot of the things I write and end up sending to places like that — are jokes that failed onstage," Cella told The Eagle during a recent phone interview.
And often, they're received well. Over the past couple of years, the Pittsfield native has had a handful of her writings published by The New Yorker and The New York Times, including "Wanted: A Personal Assistant for Some Unconventional Tasks" and "Things I'm Not Old Enough for Even Though I'm Definitely Old Enough to Be a Parent." McSweeney's, Jezebel and The Hairpin have also run her work, which can skew toward heavier subject matter than her bawdy stand-up. Though she's making a homecoming Thursday night at Berkshire Theatre Group's Comedy Garage, she won't be toning down her act.
"I'm just dirty, and I'm a little nervous about who's going to show up because, as you know, Pittsfield is a small town," the New York City-based comic said.
Cella has never performed in Berkshire County, where she was born and raised, and much of her family still resides. The daughter of Janet and Robert Cella lived in Pittsfield until she was 12, before moving to Williamstown and attending Mount Greylock Regional High School. She was interested in sketch comedy from an early age, watching "Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color."
"I didn't watch a ton of stand-up because when I was a little girl, it was like all old men, so I didn't care," she said, laughing. "The only female comics I really remember when I was little were Sarah Silverman and Janeane Garofalo, and Joan Rivers, but I didn't know her stand-up. I just knew her from E!."
Cella's own stand-up career emerged much later in life; aside from some lines in Shakespeare plays during her youth, she had never been a performer. She worked as a producer for CNN and HLN after graduating from Tufts University in 2007.
"I think I always wanted to do comedy, I just didn't understand that I could. I didn't know how. By the time I was in college, I knew about Second City and UCB. But then I got this job at CNN, and I took it because I just wanted to work in TV. I really wanted to work for a late-night show or 'The Daily Show,'" she recalled.
She moved to Atlanta and ended up staying at the network for longer than she expected as a coping mechanism: Cella's mother had cancer and died when the comedian was 23.
"I was already very unhappy at CNN by the time she died, but then I was just so desperate for some sense of normality that I didn't want to leave my job. I wanted to have something to do every day," Cella said. "So, I think I avoided comedy for a while because I was, frankly. depressed and grieving, and just trying to get through the day."
A move to New York City about eight years ago renewed her pursuit of comedy. She started taking classes at UCB.
"That was dipping my toe into comedy for the first time," she said.
Eventually, she worked on humor pieces between her stand-up appearances. She also founded a website, called Little Old Lady Comedy, with fellow comic Ginny Hogan.
"Writing is the one thing I see as kind of the throughline of my career. Writing is something I always did and wasn't as afraid to do. I was really afraid to perform," Cella said.
In her humor stories, Cella resists focusing on topical, headline-driven subjects.
"Especially in the internet era, people just try to write things that will go viral. And if that doesn't come naturally to you, then don't try to do that," Cella said of her advice to aspiring humor scribes. "Just think of an idea, something that actually interests you, write that, and you might be surprised at the results."
Cella's openness is common to both her page and stage work, but it manifests itself differently. While her stand-up may comment on New Yorkers' attractiveness, her writing can delve deeper.
"For example, I do write a lot about my family, and especially my mother's death. But I don't really talk about that onstage. I have, and sometimes I do, but it feels uncomfortable for me onstage because it makes people sad. Even if the jokes are funny, it's a little bit sad," she said.
In a piece for The New York Times called "I'm So Sorry for My Loss," Cella references the awkwardness that ensues when she tells people about her mother's death.
"The worst part of losing my mom is the fact that she's no longer alive, since she had so much living left to do. The second worst part is how much I and the rest of her loved ones miss her. About the 100th worst part is how uncomfortable most people get when I tell them my mother is dead," Cella writes.
Focusing on comedy, in performance and in writing, has helped Cella move forward after the loss of her mother.
"It deterred me for a while," she said of her grief, "but ultimately, I was like, this is what I want to do. Life is short. I might as well go for it."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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