Leslie Barton, Photo: Matt Santos
As a child, Leslie Barton would perform renditions of theme songs from her parents’ favorite shows. She would add her twists and flair to them as a way to diffuse tension. Her parents fought a lot, and making them laugh was a way to distract from their fights. In many ways, Leslie has never stopped being that kid. She uses comedy as a tool to diffuse tensions and distract people from the things that haunt them in their ordinary lives. She does renditions. She sings the jokes till the pain becomes secondary.
Like many comics, Barton didn’t immediately galvanize toward the trade. She started doing comedy around eight years ago. Before comedy, she was a multi-dimensional artist and creative force in Phoenix. She was part of the fledging band Breakfast of Champions, and she managed Modified Arts for about five years. There’s a saying in poetry that every great poet is always trying to rewrite their first great poem, and in many ways, though Barton ventured out and did a lot of artistic work, she is beholden to her first love, her most cherished memory: making people laugh.
There’s something particular about being an only child. You have to create a lot of entertainment for yourself, and sometimes that translates to a kid who’s isolated and can’t relate to their peers. However, Barton moved a lot when she was young and had to rely on her keen sense of humor in order to make friends. Also, it helped to have funny parents. “My parents were hilarious,” Barton said. “My mom was super dry and biting. My dad was just comical. He could write a joke. He kind of got me interested in doing artwork. We would, in some weird way, write jokes. They would also let me stay up super late and watch Saturday Night Live and such, and I would go to school and tell the jokes.”
Barton’s family eventually stopped moving as much when she was in about eighth grade, when they settled in Phoenix. Leslie attended Thunderbird High School, where she got into music, which would remain a fixture in her life for several years. After graduating, Barton plunged headfirst into the Phoenix art scene and was able to work at both Modified Arts and Space 55 doing various art and music enterprises in the early 2000s. “What was great about Space 55 is that they treat you like equals. They don’t look down on you for trying new things. They were all highly educated people,” said Barton. It wasn’t until 2010 that Barton began to consider doing comedy. Her friend, Phoenix comic Steve Maxwell, pushed her to write jokes and do comedy. He was already established and saw something in her. “I started doing jokes and got up on stage, and I got better at it,” Barton said. “Like everything else, even if you suck, if you keep at it you will get better.”
Comics perform for various reasons, and Barton just wants to be successful enough to tour and make rent. Compared to music, comedy seems like something that forces her into herself in ways that music never did. Barton carries a book around with her and writes down every funny thing she thinks of during the day, whether it’s good or bad. She also talks to herself a lot in the apartment. “I live alone, so there’s nobody around to see what a nutcase I am when I’m screaming in my rooms at the top of my voice,” said Barton. “Or if I just literally walk from room to room telling the same joke over again trying to get it where it sounds right to me. A lot of people think that comics improvise their sets, but don’t realize that a lot of times that ten-minute set was years in the making.” When Barton first started doing comedy, she would also – based on the advice of Steve Maxwell – take a newspaper and write current-event jokes.
One thing that Barton feels really helped her was having a writing group with people who she felt were better than her. “It made me more confident. It made me more self-assured,” Barton said. In regard to comedy, Barton feels like it’s something that’s keeping her sane. “I’m just doing comedy until I fall in love with someone. Then I’ll be in love and do comedy.”
Genevieve Rice, Photo: Matt Santos
Artists often arise out of adversity and isolation, which was certainly a part of the alchemy of Genevieve Rice. Raised in Oklahoma, Rice was very much an outsider, both socially and politically. “I think my outsider status helped prepare me for later in life. I’m a stronger person for realizing not everyone has to agree with you and how that’s sometimes OK,” said Rice. Despite that, Rice’s family was super supportive of all her endeavors. One story in particular sticks in her mind about her childhood in relation to skipping. She remembers when her father taught her in their driveway. He actually started skipping himself, and it felt like a really sweet gesture at the time. Her father was a strong comedic presence in her house. He had a song for everything and would even announce his return home in song.
Both of Rice’s parents were fine artists. She grew up in a very colorful environment and was raised to exist in a bit of a different matrix from her peers. However, because of that, Rice felt isolated from her fellow Oklahomans. Rice responded to this feeling by originally attending a small private college in Texas; however, she eventually transferred to the University of Oklahoma, in the town of Norman, where she majored in journalism and marketing. In Norman, Rice met a group of friends who started an open mic. She believes that if it weren’t for this group of friends, she would never have done comedy at all. “The idea that you could just start something like a comedy show was foreign to me,” said Rice. A week after graduating from school, she took all the stuff she had, packed it in a car and drove to Phoenix.
While in Phoenix, Rice was able to catch various acts and gleaned inspiration from a host of people. “Over the years, I’ve been really inspired by several people in the Phoenix scene, including but not limited to: 1) Ronnie D and her sadly now defunct variety show called Muff Mondays at the Ruby Room, 2) Kirk Buckhout and Steve Maxwell of (the also defunct) Hidden House, 3) Anwar Newton and the LTWSE in Phoenix, 4) the entire crew of the Torch Theatre for introducing me to good long-form improv, 5) the storytelling scene in Phoenix, 6) people I’m going to kick myself for not remembering to list. I’ve also been greatly inspired and re-energized every time I’ve gone to a festival out of town. It’s really a fantastic way to experience comedy.”
The major changing point for Rice was when she attended the RiotLA comedy festival. She felt as though the alt-comedy event was tailored especially for people like her. The festival inspired her to try to bring something like that to Phoenix. Riding off the excitement of RiotLA, Rice decided to launch her own festival. “Bird City Comedy Festival is going into its third year in March 2018 in central Phoenix. We have more than 40 comedy shows over three days and feature stand-up, improv, sketch, storytelling, podcasts and lots of things in between.
Photo: Charissa Lucille
“This year, our headliners will be Jackie Kashian, Marcella Arguello, Joel Kim Booster, Ian Abramson, Kyle Akers, Dave Waite, Brandie Posey, Maggie More and others. In addition, we will showcase talent from all over Arizona and North America.”
The first year of launching the festival was difficult for Rice, as she felt the need to hard-pitch the concept to a lot of people. However, the second year was much easier since they had established a reputation for putting on good shows. “For the third year, I’m working on improvements, using the momentum of the first couple of years,” said Rice. “We’re changing our show schedule a bit. We’re converting to a 501(c)(3). We’re doing it a bit earlier in the year, and we’re maybe having an adult Easter egg hunt.”
In terms of being a woman in comedy, Rice feels that it has come with its share of derision at times. Commenting on comedy as it pertains to the #metoo movement, Rice believes that it’s about time. “Sexual misconduct is very prevalent in comedy,” said Rice. “We are people whose job it is to push boundaries, and we are working without any real oversight. For years, a lot of us have resigned ourselves to thinking that it’s part of the job. So many gatekeepers in comedy are creeps, and you have to play their game to get ahead or risk your career. My hope is that #metoo is helping people realize how common sexual misconduct is and victims know they aren’t alone. I’m hoping all these allegations coming out make people rethink their behavior at the very least.”
Going forward, Rice feels she has a lot to offer the comedy scene. She’s still working on the Bird City Comedy Festival and now has her own podcast, “Thank You for Being a Podcast,” about the Golden Girls, with Anthony Desamito. She also hosts a show called Jazz & Jokes at the Nash. Rice hopes to keep the momentum up by, in her words, “continuing to write jokes and grow as a performer, festival runner and person. Also, I just found out there’s a raccoon cafe in South Korea.”