The Transformation of Martha Kelly

Last year’s sleeper hit Baskets— you know that show that won an Emmy for best supporting actor– was a big success for many involved. It announced the triumphant arrival to television for cult comic and movie star (in the best performance of an impressive career), a comeback for the beloved Louie Anderson, and breakthrough performance for first-timer , the stand-up comic who hadn’t acted before. As Chip’s only friend Martha, she’s the heart of the series about a couple of misfits getting by in Bakersfield in the tragi-comedy series on FX. But how does a non-actor get a leading role on a TV series? Your friend of almost 20 years writes it for you.

Kelly met and became friends with Galifianakis in 1998 at an open mic before moving to Texas in 2000. Then in 2009, he “blew up from The Hangover” says Kelly, “and I thought for sure he’d lose my phone number, but I texted him congratulations and once a year we’d text or talk on the phone. We weren’t like best friends, but I love him to death. Then he called about Baskets it was out of the blue.” The pitch for the character was as bizarre as the often surreal show. “He said I’m going to play a down-and-out rodeo clown, and you’ll play my personal assistant.”

Even stranger was the fact that they hadn’t even sat down to write the pilot and no one knew how or why a down-and-out rodeo clown would need a personal assistant or how he could afford one.  Kelly’s reaction to the offer was logical, “I can’t act, I’m not an actor,” she said, before Galifianakis promised “you don’t have to, just say the lines the way you would naturally say them. He didn’t say the character is me or based on me, just to say the lines like I naturally would.” Kelly’s unique voice and affectation (in real-life and on the show), a droll, but sunny monotone sweetness, is proof that some people really can make things sound funny because of the way they say it.

Kelly is a longtime stand-up who has gone back and forth between Texas (Austin) and California. The challenge of suddenly acting on the show can be a challenge for any stand-up who’s used to writing 100% of her own material, especially someone who embraces being herself on stage, claiming (with signature self-effacing humor) that putting on another personality on stage would “just be awkward.” But because the show also stars stand-up comedians Galifianakis and Anderson who are quick to change lines on set, Kelly felt encouraged to use her talents on set as well. “Practically every scene we shot was changed by Zach, Jonathan, or Louie Anderson. So when I’d say, can I change this, can I change this line, they’d always say yes. Sometimes they’d even ask me to change stuff.”

When I read the scripts and thought there were things insulting to the character or she was saying or doing stuff I wouldn’t do, I got upset and almost quit,

Kelly isn’t Martha the insurance agent, but is very protective of her fictional character. “At the beginning, Zach told me to respond to him the way I would respond in real life. She’s kind of me, in uglier clothes. When I read the scripts and thought there were things insulting to the character or she was saying or doing stuff I wouldn’t do, I got upset and almost quit, because I’m not a professional actor. I emailed Zach about it and he emailed me back “you don’t have to do anything you’re uncomfortable doing, but please remember you are not the character. She’s a separate entity.” And as we were shooting, she became less of a doormat. The longer we were shooting the better friends I became with the cast and crew. I went from feeling like I’m this awkward idiot to feeling like everyone knows me and loves me, and I felt the same way towards them. Every day became fun and I didn’t think people saw her as a loser anymore.”

Zach is such a sweet-hearted person who always wanted to make me feel okay.

Part of that transformation might come from Galifianakis’ strong hand in the show’s creation, a person who may be more like Martha than he is like Chip and Dale, the twins he plays. Kelly says that “If anything, Zach is the kind of person that takes care of other people the way my character does. I didn’t even realize when people thought Zach was mean to me, because it all blurred between how we are in real life and how we are on the show. Zach is such a sweet-hearted person who always wanted to make me feel okay. I love Dale being an asshole because it’s the other end of the spectrum of what Zach is really like.”

[Louie] make me laugh and break character all the time. He’s so good.”

That first day on set, nerve-racking for anyone, was terrifying for Kelly. But Galifianakis and Jonathan Krisel (co-creator) set the tone as soon as Kelly drove up expecting to be fired any minute (but willing herself to take this once and a lifetime opportunity). “The first scene we shot, was when he crashed his scooter. And when I got there he came up and hugged me and said “please don’t be nervous, this is supposed to be fun. No pressure.” And then Jonathan is also very sweet. So they made it feel like it was just Zach and I hanging out.” Kelly first met Louie Anderson, who plays Mrs. Baskets, on set and found him hardest to act opposite because “he’d make me laugh and break character all the time. He’s so good.”

But the collective process of making a show like Baskets turned out to be rewarding, despite (or because) of how different it is from stand-up. “It’s weird to be a stand-up, because as a stand-up you have 100% creative control over what the audience sees of you. But on a show, other people are writing the character and affecting how I look, and you have no control over the editing. But getting to work on a common project is so much fun that isn’t part of stand-up. The social part of stand-up is at night, when people are drinking, and it’s great. But it’s not like spending all day with people you love working on one thing together.”

Kelly’s stand-up career has been full of starts and stops, including her earlier struggles with alcohol addiction. She left California to live in Austin, because she wanted to step away from the competitive showbiz scene and focus on building her material back up. “Between 2013 and 2015, I maybe did 4 stand up shows” says Kelly “I felt like I needed to go somewhere that had a lot of open mics, would let me work on a lot of new material, and allow me to be bad without worrying someone would be there that could ruin my career. When I got here, it was better than I expected. This is the biggest comedy boom, there are comedy shows every day in Austin and they get a regular crowd.”

Some in these crowds now recognize Kelly for her work in Baskets, including one of her favorite fan encounters, the girl who asked her to sign the back of her Costco card (“it was so sweet, I almost cried”). Besides Baskets, stand-up, and one of the most delightful Twitter accounts online, Kelly is getting some additional acting opportunities, one movie she’ll appear in, opposite Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman and the other, a cameo in the new Spider-Man film. All this newfound success despite not pursuing acting all that hard. “I’m probably never going to be someone that asks agents to set me up on auditions, I don’t even know if that’s the right language. But a couple of times people have contacted me since Baskets came out and asked me if I’d like to do a cameo. One didn’t work out time-wise, and the other I had to self-tape, and that was really, really uncomfortable. I didn’t even want to send it, but my manager’s so nice and encouraged me to send it. So not wanting to disappoint her, I sent it. If someone asked me to play the same character on Baskets and were nice to me, I’d probably do it.”

Baskets season 2 premiered on Thursday January 19th and airs on Thursdays at 10pm on FX.

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Lesley Coffin is the Features/Interviews Editor for the movie site Filmoria. She has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Look for her brand new podcast, "Lake Shore Drive to Hollywood" part of the Second Wind Collective podcast network. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.


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    January 20, 2017 at 11:04 am

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  2. MicheleBach666

    January 20, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Great article.  Love Martha Kelly.   It’s pretty impressive she was the funniest person on Baskets going up against people like Louie and Zach.   Can’t wait for season 2.