Stand-up comedian Heather McMahan is living (and laughing through) her truth

heather mcmahan

With dates at Knoxville, TN’s Knoxville Civic Auditorium (Feb 17), Philadelphia, PA’s Academy of Music (Feb 18) and Washington D.C.’s Tysons (March 2-4), wily stand-up comedian Heather McMahan’s 2023 “Comeback Tour” is in its fullest flower. Which is great because soon, the Southern transplant to NYC, the haughtily homespun and rivetingly honest comic storyteller beloved for her social media accounts of pregnancy attempts and podcast tales of love and marriage (Absolutely Not), won’t have time for the road. Not with having just signed to NBC for McMahan’s lifelong dream: a sitcom about her life at home with a new husband and her old mom.

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Before heading out for her February live, arena and theater stand-up dates, Heather McMahan and A.D. Amorosi talked about laughing at life, despite any and all strife.

A.D. Amorosi: On one of your Instagram posts, my wife noticed something right away about the way you walk – the way you present your toe and turn – that signified to her that you had hardcore dance training. Is that true?
Heather McMahan: Yes. I do. That’s called a ‘bevel,’ in the old musical theater world. When I was a kid growing up, I did a ton of musical theater, and did that again in college. I’m an old dancer, and probably would have thrived as a showgirl if I had a faster metabolism. I realized early on that my neck is not strong enough to carry one of those big head pieces, so I just stuck to comedy.

A.D. Amorosi: For all of your truthiness and forthright manner on your podcast, I still don’t know how you landed in New York in the first place. Was it comedy or just wanting to get out of the South?
Heather McMahan: I always knew that I was going to go to New York after college. I went to school in Mississippi from Atlanta, but knew that I wanted to do stand-up comedy and improv. I wanted to be on SNL< and knew that’s where I had to be. My high school yearbook quote read ‘Live from New York. It’s Saturday Night.” Now, that’s really embarrassing, but, if I ever hopefully get on Saturday Night Live as a host, it will be some weird manifestation of what I wrote. “Look, my dreams are coming true.”

A.D. Amorosi: A great story for the opening SNL monologue.
Heather McMahan: As a musical theater kid pursuing comedy, New York was my mecca. Eventually, you have to go to LA, but, then you only have any success when you eventually leave LA. The only time anyone in LA calls you, the only time you book a job is when you leave town. Train in NY, leave LA. They’ll call you.

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A.D. Amorosi: Considering the comic mind you had starting out – obviously very well defined – what is its evolution? What are you now that you weren’t then? What is the continued level of discourse?
Heather McMahan: Honestly, it is perspective, right? As you age, things happen. And I’ve had a lot of radical life experiences where everything changed. I thought I had made plans for myself with everything figured out, and life happens. And sometimes you have to do some hard pivots. You have to survive. With age comes wisdom, and with that, some ridiculous reflection when you realize the mistakes that you’ve made along the way. The situations that I have personally put myself in just led to absolute hilarity.

A.D. Amorosi: There is an amount of comfortability, or discomfort-ability, with who you are, and making that into a comedic voice.
Heather McMahan: Absolutely. And if anyone comes to my shows, they always know that the joke is on me. My shows are basically me roasting myself – 90 minutes of me roasting me, or someone in my family as we just try to figure everything out. Life is already hard enough, so how do we get through this together? My job as a comedian is to take things that make us feel uncomfortable and awkward, things we don’t understand, and try and find similarity; to find out why we do what we do.

A.D. Amorosi: Your work is free of any obvious comic influence. Was there something or someone who offered inspiration – a writing or comic model?
Heather McMahan: When it comes to stand-up in general, for me Joan Rivers was truly an icon. She’s one of the reasons why I got into comedy. Everything about her was so liberating. She just let it all rip and said what she wanted to say when she wanted to say it. So funny. So self-deprecating. Then when it came to the comedic acting side of things, Lucille Ball is tops. Her ability to make the ugliest faces and to put herself in situations – hers was a completely immersive character. Between Lucille Ball and Joan Rivers, that is a perfect amalgamation of what my comedic style is.

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A.D. Amorosi: Having spoken to other stand-up comedians whose use of social media helped them make their bones before going out on tour – TikTok and Instagram in particular – and aided them in building routines and audiences, what is its appeal for you?
Heather McMahan: What’s interesting about social media is that it popped off at a time when I was going through a lot in life.  My dad had just passed away, I had only recently left Los Angeles and moved home to Atlanta to help my family figure out a new normal. At that time, I was out and away from the club scenes of New York and LA, so I had to find a positive light within a bad situation. I started very cathartically putting up characters and stand-up bits on Instagram just as a tool  -to put my comedy out there.

A.D. Amorosi: For outreach. Connection.
Heather McMahan: Yes, and for my own healing process. And from there, it just all took off. I am so grateful for social media. Yes, it can be used for evil, but I try and use it for good. Moving on with the times, though, it is the most immediate way to get your stuff out there, and it is super empowering for creators where we are able to just put our things out there, and not have to wait for 45 people to open the door – and who may not even give you the time of day after they open it. I can put my comedy out there directly to the consumer. That’s awesome. Now, TikTok is an entirely different beast. My team would love me to TikTok more, but I don’t want to get in fights in the comment section with a 22-year-old kid who doesn’t like my make-up tutorial. I feel like an old lady some days trying to figure out TikTok. But it’s all about taking the reins back.

A.D. Amorosi: Which feeds into my next question: I got this from Whitney Cummings. You have filmed your own next stand-up comedy special – is that for artistic or financial control?
Heather McMahan: Honestly, both. Because I have been a self-starter my whole career, I simply said that I wanted to get this done, not wait for anyone’s permission to do it, and let’s shoot it. I can edit it, the way I want to edit it, and have total control. I already know that my fabs will want to buy it or be a part of it, so, we’ll take it out to market as soon as it is wrapped and we’ll see who wants it from there. Comedians aren’t waiting around any longer. Ask for forgiveness instead of permission, and especially with feale comedians we have to do what we have to do.

A.D. Amorosi: And whatever you do must maintain the specificity of your voice, one that connects directly with an audience.
Heather McMahan: I don’t even know which rooms that I’m playing. We’re calling this “the Comeback Tour,” but I’m humbled by it all as we play bigger rooms this time that we did on our last tour. Look I would do what I do on a street corner for a cheese-steak. This is all very humbling.

A.D. Amorosi: Your voice on the podcast is very conversational, a real fireside chat. How does that become a stand-up stage show?
Heather McMahan: There are definite punchlines. I am a natural orator, a storyteller. But so much of it is rooted in, you know, giving people a behind-the-scenes look into what they just heard on the podcast and Instagram – like what really happened at my wedding or what a 30-day honeymmon with my Italian husband was all about. There is so much smoke and mirrors on Instagram, that people appreciate my transparency. That has always been a part of my comedy. So has all of the crowd work that I do – I love doing that. That’s what being an old theater kid brings to the show. People come to the shows dressed-up as me, or come head-to-toe in feathers and sequins. It’s a really night out. And I really like to weave a genuine emotional component through all of my shows, so that – I hope – I can make you feel something that you didn’t feel before you walked into the theater.

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A.D. Amorosi: I know that you have a deep bond between yourself and your female audience. What have you heard about where you take your male audience members?
Heather McMahan: That’s so funny. I feel very empowered by the fact that my audience is so filled with women – I hear from so many promoters who they never see so many women in their audiences as stand-up is so male dominated. Guys come begrudgingly thinking that it is going to be a show for women, and leave having had a helluva time. Just don’t bring your kid. If you bring your children, you are a terrible parent. Plus, it is a very multi-generational audience. At the end of the day, everyone understands a blow job joke. I’m honored by that

A.D. Amorosi: I’ve followed your longtime trajectory in wanting to get your own sitcom, and know that you just signed on for I Can’t Right Now. What does that mean to be able to so closely base a series on your life – that is awesome.
Heather McMahan: It is awesome AND surreal, right? As a stand-up comedian, I can control the narrative. Whatever I say on stage is my truth. Now to be able to have a scripted series, take a step back and take a look at it all – that’s a bizarre moment. I’m so excited. But it’s Hollywood you know, and anything can happen. I’ll believe it after I’ve shot seven seasons.

    • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

      A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and WPPM.org.

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