interview

Meg Stalter: ‘I’ve heard British people like weird stuff...’

The comedian who became a star online during the pandemic talks to Annabel Nugent about not punching down, how her family reacted when she came out, and why her characters are always ‘a bit delusional’

Thursday 23 December 2021 06:38
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<p>Stalter bids farewell to 2021 alongside Yvonne Orji, Chelsea Peretti and Aparna Nancherla in Amazon Video’s comedy special ‘Yearly Departed’ </p>

Stalter bids farewell to 2021 alongside Yvonne Orji, Chelsea Peretti and Aparna Nancherla in Amazon Video’s comedy special ‘Yearly Departed’

You know a Meg Stalter sketch when you see one. The LA-based comedian speaks to the camera in character for about a minute, often in a Midwestern accent. Most skits follow the same structure, which is laid out in a pithy caption like “Woman on a flight that makes you switch seats so she can sit next to her husband”.

You’ll also find they all have more than 100,000 views on Instagram and a couple of hundred adoring comments attesting to just how “LOL” each one is. More importantly, though, you know a Meg Stalter sketch when you feel one. Her characters toggle between parody and sincerity, so gently that you’re not sure what to feel: annoyance or pity. All you know is you’re laughing and scrolling to the next one.

That mixed-up emotion is intentional, the 30-year-old tells me over the phone from her childhood home in Ohio. It was there that she stayed with family when lockdown first hit in 2020 and there that she filmed what turned out to be her breakout sketches. Now she’s back home. Only this time it’s a stopover on the way to London for a sold-out run at the Soho Theatre. “I’ve heard British people like weird stuff, so I hope they like my show because it’s, well, strange,” she laughs.

It’s easy to just punch down but the things that I think are really funny are characters who seem real

Meg Stalter

Stalter’s got the flu so her usual Midwestern lilt sounds a little nasal, endearingly so. “It’s easy to just punch down but the things that I think are really funny are characters who seem real,” she says, her voice sticking to the vowels like toffee to teeth. “You have to play them with love if you want them to feel real. It comes off differently than just making fun of them.”

Stalter is a satirist with empathy. A big-hearted caricaturist. Her carriage of characters – who are at once broad cliches and hyper-specific, like, say “someone who lives in New York” or a “dog food influencer” – are reflections of herself. “I’ve either been that person or I am that person deep inside.” Stalter doesn’t need much to transform: a cheap blonde wig here, a cap-spelling “dog mum” in rhinestones there. But it’s the chaos peeking through the feigned composure that sells it; the confidently mispronounced words and crazed eyes that make these unhinged characters impossible to look away from.

You don’t have to look far to see the origins of Stalter’s success. Her path to fame was short. It spans the however-many months of lockdown during which Stalter’s content emerged as a mainstay of quote-unquote quarantine culture.

Her name appeared on every “who to watch” list; The New York Times crowned Stalter “Sketch Comedy’s Newest Star”. While she’s not the only internet-incubated talent to forge a shimmering career out of last year’s dumpster fire, her success on social media is paying off on a bigger scale. Stalter parlayed those headlines and her devout online following into sold-out shows IRL.

She landed a scene-stealing role in HBO’s Hacks, which picked up 15 Emmy nominations earlier this year. This week, together with comedy stalwarts Yvonne Orji, Chelsea Peretti and Aparna Nancherla, Stalter bids farewell to “hot vaxx summer” in the second edition of the Amazon comedy special Yearly Departed.

Stalter grew up one of four siblings in a mostly conservative, “kind of small town” in Ohio. Her mum was a nurse; her dad is a tattoo artist. He inked all four kids with the same bee-wolf hybrid beast (Stalter’s howls on her upper right thigh). Their house was a riot. They’d make each other laugh filming fake talk shows. “We’re always just trying to have the best time that we can,” says Stalter, who notes that she’s sitting right next to her brother Nick as we speak. “We’re all so close.”

At school, Stalter lived a double life. “I was always very shy and scared in my classes, but then after school I’d go to drama club and I was the life of the party,” she declares triumphantly. “I had a gay boyfriend and we were the power couple. I was like a queen there with all my little freaks.” Shy girl by day, queen freak by night.

After high school, she took classes in teaching and nursing (“even though I pass out whenever I see blood”) but eventually returned to performing. She wanted to move to Los Angeles, but couldn’t afford it, so settled on Chicago instead. There, everything fell into place.

“It opened up my world,” says Stalter. “I felt like a star and I loved every minute of it.” She pauses before stipulating: “I mean, I was really bad, but I thought I was really, really good.” A certain amount of delusion is healthy, she insists. Especially in showbiz. “You have to be your number-one fan because there’s so many times you hear ‘no’.”

It was also in Chicago that the comedian realised she was queer. “I was a late bloomer. Because I grew up in the church, I didn’t even question if I was straight or not. I liked boys so I thought I must be straight and that’s that. But looking back now, how did I not know? I was nervous to sleep too close to my friends and I had crushes, but I didn’t realise it.”

Eventually, Stalter came out as bisexual to her friends and family. The whole thing was gloriously anticlimactic. “I told my mum in a text message and she was like, ‘I thought you were a lesbian.’ My dad couldn’t care less and my sister was like, ‘Yeah that makes sense.’ Nobody reacted, really, which I feel very thankful for because I know it’s hard for people.” Stalter did, however, receive some texts containing “misinterpreted Bible verses” from extended family. “I’ve never felt any judgement from God or the universe. I’ve only felt judgement from my cousins,” she says matter-of-factly.

One evening in the height of lockdown, Stalter went live on Instagram in character as a fortune teller. The joke stopped, though, when fans started sending in their very real concerns about the pandemic. At one point Stalter dropped the act completely to speak to them as herself. “I felt like I was getting a connection from the people watching,” she recalls. “They feel like they know me because they do know a part of me. And I feel like I know them too.”

My characters are always people who are a bit delusional about how great they are

Meg Stalter

That’s the thing about Stalter. You never know what you’ll get: a hilarious 30-second bit about “Buckingtam Palace” or an ad-hoc group therapy session. (Other notable entries in her repertoire include Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s wedding planner; a woman lying about how good her Mother’s Day was; a straight woman posting about National Coming Out Day.) Across the spectrum, though, there is a barely visible through-line in her work. A string of floss connecting each deranged glance and mispronounced word.

“My characters are always people who are a bit delusional about how great they are. Like they’re losing their minds, but they’re smiling about it,” explains Stalter. The same is true of her role on Hacks as Kayla, the energetically inept assistant to a talent-agent boss (played by co-creator Paul W Downs). On paper, Kayla is unlikeable. She’s terrible at a job she only got because her dad owns half the company. And yet it’s inevitable you warm to her. There’s charisma behind the chaos and a relatable insecurity hidden in her bold blue eyeliner. Kayla might fail but she fails with gusto – and that’s admirable.

When Stalter read the script, she knew she had to get the part. Kayla felt natural to her; the bombastic verve and mislaid confidence felt like home. Only later did Stalter learn why.

“My friend sent me a screenshot of a script and it said, ‘think Megan Stalter’ next to Kayla,” she recalls. Other people auditioned but, as Stalter proves in every scene she’s in, you can’t beat the real deal. After the first episode aired, Judd Apatow tweeted: “I hope there is a five-episode arc deeply exploring this character.”

Two weeks after our call, I’m in the crowd at the Soho Theatre for Stalter’s penultimate performance. On-stage, she is hilarious. She struts around like a Seventies icon in a plunging white jumpsuit, hoop earrings and freshly dyed black hair. She pulls out people from the audience as if they’re sacrificial lambs to the slaughter of her comedy.

But it’s after the show that the comedian’s appeal becomes even more apparent. An orderly queue forms in front of Stalter. Each person in it is waiting for their chance to talk to her. Their pandemic buddy. Their online BFF. Their queen freak. She spends hours giving each person her undivided attention. Remarkably it never looks like a chore.

Watching Stalter engage so intensely, so genuinely with dozens of strangers, calls to mind something else she said on our call. “The friendships we made during the pandemic are special because you went through something so horrible together.”

Stalter and her fans are bonded by trauma. That and a mutual love of delusional underdogs who are out here just trying their best.

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