Throwing the book (seller) at comedy

Josie Leavitt is coming to Burlington, Vermont tonight and hoping to kill.

“I bombed. I killed. The language of comedy is all very violent,” she said. It’s worth noting that Leavitt said this in almost the same tone of voice with which she had gleefully shared with me the color of the nail polish on her toes: “Flashbulb fuchsia.” She’d just had a pedicure.

Tonight she will be a self-proclaimed comedy diva at the FlynnSpace at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. There, along with three other women – some of whom started as students in the standup comedy class she teaches at the Flynn – she will be hoping to kill. When you’re a comic, killing is good; bombing is bad.

And usually she does kill. I’ve seen Leavitt and I’m a fan – and not simply because I’m a novelist and she’s a bookseller by day, co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont.  I’m a fan because she’s very funny. My wife’s a fan, too.18593466_295

People used to make jokes about female comedians, but no more. At least no one does who has a brain or eyes or who has spent even a nanosecond watching TV. In addition to the standup genius of such women as Amy Schumer or Lisa Lampanelli or Sarah Silverman, there has been the inspired TV and film work of Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig.

This June marks the twentieth anniversary of Leavitt’s first time doing standup in a club. It was June 4, 1993, 10:20 at night. She was at a club called “Don’t Tell Mama” on the edge of Theatre Row on Manhattan’s West Side. “I had a five-minute set and everything worked,” she recalled. “I left my body. My life changed.” Back then she was an English teacher by day, but she spent the next three years working the bars and comedy clubs, sometimes bombing but more often killing.

When she moved to Vermont in 1996, she expected to continue teaching. Instead, with her partner Elizabeth Bluemle, she opened a children’s bookstore in Charlotte, because jobs were scarce, Elizabeth had been a children’s librarian, and – oh, by the way – there was an empty building for lease just west of U.S. 7. They killed there, too, and in 2006 moved to a bigger location in Shelburne, where their store is today. But she resumed her standup career, and tonight marks the 30th time that she has performed “Standup, Sit Down, and Laugh” at the Flynn. Leavitt curates the show, which means that she picks the comics.

She freely admits that she tries out material on customers when she is at work at the Flying Pig, which is an added benefit to shopping there when she kills – and a chance to heckle when she bombs.IMG_1101

She also teaches standup these days at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington: “I never find out what the crime is until after the class. I want to work with the inmates as comics and judge them as comics; I want to help them become better writers and speakers. It helps them with their parole hearings and job interviews. If they can write a joke, they can write a resume.” Of course, even the very good inmate comedians don’t put “killed” on their resumes.

What she finds particularly interesting about her gig as a jailhouse comedy coach is this: “The men are much more respectful than the women. The women push the boundaries more.”

Leavitt’s routines tend to be about her own experiences and what’s going on in her life right now.This is her strategy even if her life is awash in disaster. “How can I make something funny?” she asks herself. “If I can do that, it takes so much angst out of life. It’s a fun way to live.”

So, what might be in store for us tonight? She returned last Sunday from Florida. On Tuesday she had her gall bladder out. And at home she has a 15-year-old dog with dementia.

That feels to me like the makings of a pretty good set.

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What: “Stand Up, Sit Down, and Laugh”

When: Sunday, April 7, 7 pm

Where: FlynnSpace

How much: $12

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 7, 2013. The paperback of Chris’s novel, The Sandcastle Girls, arrives next week.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.