Alyse Kenny is an actress and comedienne who hosts a monthly comedy fundraiser called It’s A Charity Thing! at Gotham Comedy Club. The benefit show features a different charity each month and has received accolades for combining good works with a good time. She’s also a regular actress on ABC’s What Would You Do?, where she presents strangers with an opportunity to stand up and be the best kind of person.
MCD: How do you select the charities you support with It’s a Charity Thing?
AK: Some of the charities find me through Gotham or from reading press about the show. Other charities may be those that I’m interested in raising awareness about or hear about through friends and colleagues. I’m very happy with the response it has been getting. It’s been extremely rewarding to work with so many different charities over the past two years.
MCD: Have you been active in charitable work your entire life?
AK: I hadn’t been involved with fundraising before It’s A Charity Thing! but I really enjoy it. There are so many people that need help. I also come from a family of doctors so growing up in that environment watching my parents help people for a living set a great example.
MCD: How did your doctor parents feel about you entering a creative field like acting and later stand-up comedy?
AK: They hated it. They are very practical people so of course they forbid me to choose a major in college like acting or drama. Of course I could have chosen that but they wouldn’t have paid for it. They just know how hard and unpredictable this business can be so they wanted me to be able to support myself and have a career that was more stable. Funny that I ended up in it anyway. I’m a bit stubborn!
MCD: And how do they feel these days? Now that you have an Emmy and help people laugh their way to charitable aid…)
AK: They’re coming around a bit. Of course they are always excited when I’m on TV and booking things here and there. I’ve been very fortunate to have a recurring gig on ABC’s What Would You Do? which is a great show to be on because it’s a hidden camera show and I have to improvise real life situations to see how people react. It’s different every time and I have a lot of fun doing it. The Emmy was for producing so yes they’re now hopeful I may amount to something one day.
MCD: Is there an art to provoking a reaction from people? What you do on that show is somewhere between a skit and improv, with half the players unaware…so do you have any tricks to ensure they react? Or ways to read them?
AK: Great question. The best approach is really the same thing you strive for when it comes to standup comedy. And that is to be real/truthful. When I approach people in an episode, say at a supermarket where we shot last week, I talk to them in a very natural way without being too pushy so that they feel safe and comfortable talking to me. Since I’m a stranger to them, there’s this delicate line you walk where you need to engage them but not be too overbearing and scare them away. Same thing with how you approach your audience on stage as a comedian. I think the work is similar in that respect.
MCD: Has there ever been a case where someone overreacted to the point where you couldn’t use it for the show?
AK: We actually shoot anywhere from 10-12 hours in a day as we run the scenario over and over again with different people. So there are many that on the editing room floor for one reason or another. The producers choose the most compelling/interesting reactions or ones that deliver a strong message or who they feel may strike a chord with viewers. Big reactions are great but some people get angry when they found out they’ve been “had” and refuse to sign the release form which gives the show permission to use their footage.
MCD: Do you have a favorite moment from one of those shoots?
AK: I love when people really put themselves out there and show compassion. It happens all the time on the show which I think has a lot to do with why it’s so popular. In one episode, I played a retail sales girl that was being verbally abused by a customer (played by another actor) and I had a woman in the store actually offer me a job when she thought the store manager was really firing me in our fake scenario. When the woman found out I was an actress at the end, she cried. She was so shaken by the whole situation watching me get treated like that that she put herself out there and stook up for me and offered me the opportunity to work for her on the spot! My parents said I should have taken the job because it probably had benefits.
MCD: I imagine that can be pretty reaffirming about other human beings.
AK: It really is. The show tests people.
MCD: Now as for your stand-up: you got into it to take the reins of your creativity, correct? What have you discovered about yourself and the art form as you’ve developed your act?
AK: Yes I like the fact that standup comedy gives you the opportunity to be proactive — to get on stage and have a voice on your own accord is empowering. I’ve learned alot about myself through standup. When I first started I was very scripted. I like to feel prepared so I would write out my entire act, memorize it and then go on stage and do it. The problem with that is you need to give yourself space to really be in the moment. If you are just following a script you’re locked in.
What has helped me tremendously is the other show I produce and host at Gotham called “Storytalks!” It’s a storytelling show featuring writers, actors and comics that I host. I also ask theme-related trivia and award campy prizes to bring a fun audience participation element into the show. Hosting has really gotten me out just doing “material” and trusting my improv background. It has helped me develop and my performance has grown so much since I started doing that.
MCD: Have you noticed any themes in your comedy as you shake off the script and pursue your own musings?
AK: Yes my take on relationships seems to color quite a bit of my time on stage lately. I’m in a new chapter of my life I never thought I’d be in which is being single after being married for four years. It can be hard. It’s a big life change and it’s an adjustment that alot of people may have also gone through or are going through. I’m just starting to feel comfortable exploring that and sharing what it’s like for me on stage. People get it…we all go through breakups and life changes and it’s a bit cathartic to find the funny in it.
MCD: Pursuant to that, let me flip the question: in talking about it through comedy, have you come to a new understanding of your personal life? Any meaningful realizations just while trying to make a joke? A lot of comics consider comedy a form of therapy.
AK: Unfortunately I’ve realized that I’m very messed up. I think I just had my aha moment. Thank you, Brendan. I mean, nothing that needs medication so we’re good there. My mom is actually a shrink so I’ve received free therapy my entire life. Maybe that’s why I prefer doing it on stage where people are laughing at what I say and not just nodding their head at me and saying “hmmm.” Aha moment number two. Every think of becoming a therapist?
MCD: I would, but it can’t compete with comedy’s offer of free drinks. Has doing stand-up changed the type of acting roles you seek?
AK: I think doing standup has changed the type of roles I seek. Basically because when you do standup you really have to see yourself. Come face-to-face with self-acceptance. If you don’t accept yourself – the good and the bad, how can you expect your audience to? You learn that your flaws and insecurities are things you shouldn’t punish yourself for – it’s okay. None of us are perfect. I think an extension of that growth has led me to seek out playing characters that have lots of flaws and struggles. Showing vs hiding the ugly is more interesting as a standup and as an actor.