Learning to Stand Strong with Tina Brandau At 40 years old Tina was struck in the head by a falling tree while training for a marathon and was given a rare second chance at life that few ever receive. She talks about what it was like to see the world through the eyes...
Ep25 Transcript: Interview with Stephanie McHugh
Andrea Vahl: Hi late starters in today’s episode. I talked to my good friend Stephanie McHugh, a standup comedian, and we told surprisingly few jokes during the episode. , we talked more about what it was like to get started as a standup comedian later in life. She has opened for acts such as Kathleen Madigan. She has a new Dry Bar comedy special, and she is crushing it.
Intro: Hello Dreamers. Welcome to the Late Starters Club, giving you the inspiration mindset and tools you need to start something midlife and beyond. Remember, it’s never too late to follow your dreams, late starters.
Andrea Vahl: It’s your host, Andrea Vahl. I am laughing because I am here with my dear friends Stephanie McHugh. We were just cracking up. We finally had to hit record. So fun, Stephanie McHugh is…I am like laughing so I can’t even say her name. Stephanie McHugh is an amazing comedian. She has a new Dry Bar special out. She has performed all over the place on cruise ships. Really all over the world at this point, on the seas and the land. . So welcome, Stephanie. I’m so glad you’re here.
Stephanie McHugh: Thank you for having me, Andrea. I’m super excited to be here.
Andrea Vahl: I know. So awesome. So I am excited to get started and talk about doing standup comedy later in life because normally we’re talking about like forties, fifties. I know you technically got started doing standup in your thirties, but it was, it’s a, that’s late for comedy, I feel.
Stephanie McHugh: It is really late and I was a stay at home mom with two kids, so that’s a very different lifestyle than most people who start standup comedy in their twenties, which I meant to do by the way, when I lived in downtown Chicago. That would’ve been a perfect time. Perfect time to do it.
Andrea Vahl: Exactly. I was in, I know I was in Chicago too, and I did improv comedy. People are like, oh, did you work, doing improv comedy. That’s a huge mecca for. …No, Didn’t start until I came out to Denver .
Stephanie McHugh: But Denver actually now is a great place to do. It always has been, but it, there’s just so much out here in Denver.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah, Denver is an amazing place to do comedy actually. There’s so much. It is it’s really, it’s been growing even I feel like even after Covid, there’s even more going on lately. Yeah. So why don’t you just tell us a little bit, let’s dive into your backstory and how you got started doing standup with, what prompted that?
Stephanie McHugh: I always loved standup comedy. My cousin got the Steve Martin’s album, I think I was in sixth grade, and I just thought he was hilarious. I always loved it. I moved to Chicago in my twenties with my good friend Michelle, and we lived downtown that I just didn’t do it. Like I almost signed up for a class and it was like $125 and I thought, that’s just too much money.
I just can’t do that. .
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. Yeah, that’s, yeah.
Stephanie McHugh: But I think it was a mental thing. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t it just, I didn’t want to do it yet. And so then I married someone in Chicago. We moved, I moved back to Colorado. He moved to Colorado and. Why humor is so important to me is when A, it’s fun.
And I have people would say, “are you the funny one in your family?” Nope, not really. They’re all, I think they’re all funny. I’m just the one who says ” Hey, let’s go to a bar at midnight on Colfax and go to an open mic and try these jokes out.” That would be the differentiating point. But when I was in junior high, I moved , my family moved from Indiana to Durango, Colorado, a small mountain town, and I wore a brace on my back for scoliosis.
Tall and gangly. And so I felt very awkward. And one of my friends was just, I thought she was beautiful Hispanic, had beautiful feathered hair,
Andrea Vahl: ooh, gosh. Feathered hair, I’m telling you.
Stephanie McHugh: I had PE first hour, so like anything that I could get done was gone and I would go to her house after school and her dad struggled with alcoholism and so he could be really brutal to her.
And I found that one day after school we were watching cartoons and He said, you’re so pretty to me, which was awkward when you’re in middle school and she told him to be quiet and he told her to shut up bitch. And something just flew outta my mouth and I made him both laugh and I cannot remember what it was, but that was like the power of humor for me.
It can really change the tone of a room like that. And growing up, You just weren’t supposed to be mean or anything like that. I’m a people pleaser. So humor was great for that. And two years later she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died, and her mom always said, you should come by the house.
And I just. Couldn’t do it. And I felt bad that I couldn’t make her laugh towards the end. So when I had kids, fast forward, moved back to Colorado, and I had two daughters, I just really wanted to let her mom know that someone thought. About her daughter, that she still, so I wrote her a letter and for whatever reason I couldn’t mail it right away.
You will see the reoccurring theme. I can’t do things like right away. I have to wait, worry and then do it.
Andrea Vahl: Let’s just obsess about this, Let’s obsess a little more and then, yeah.
Stephanie McHugh: Cause if we were, then maybe it’ll work out. But, so I didn’t send it right away and then I mailed it. And she wrote me back right away, and I always thought her birthday was on November 16th.
Because my friend in junior high was 17th, high school was 18th. So I thought, Ooh , I really connect with people whose birthday is, and her birthday was on the fourth and her mom got my card on her birthday. Oh. And wrote me this sweet letter saying, I feel like we both have an angel up in heaven looking down at us.
Thank you for reaching, just kind and warm. And I think I was holding on to guilt that I couldn’t make her laugh, but of course. A teenage girl, it’s too big. You can’t figure that, you can’t change that. But it just helped me go, what am I waiting for? Why am I not doing things that I want to try?
So I didn’t really set out to try to be a professional standup comedian. I just wanted, I took an acting class and then I took an improv class, met a bunch of people, and then met someone who said, you should really try standup. And I just loved it. I wanted to do it earlier and then nine months after I started, I won a trip to the Las Vegas Comedy Festival, so that kind of helps shift it to the, the other level, but yeah, so that’s how I started.
I even forgot the question, Andrea.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. It was how we got started. You’re still on the right question. But I think it’s fascinating cuz you talked about, the idea of comedy and making people laugh and diffusing a situation and I love that as well.
I was actually voted class clown in my high school. And it was, I just to sit back there, make wise cracks and make people laugh. And I think it is such a powerful, amazing thing. And. I think it’s so huge in the middle of tragedy and you had that whole piece recently with your dad dying that I just thought was so beautiful and and just made me laugh so much and relate to my own dad’s death as well.
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: So it’s also very unifying, I think, humor.
Stephanie McHugh: Exactly. Yeah. I know you mentioned, and I love your podcast, the Late Starters Club, because. I didn’t do comedy when it would’ve been the easiest when I was single.
I could have walked to, a couple great clubs in downtown Chicago. But so if you’re thinking, God, I really want, I love it when someone says, I really want to try standup comedy. To me, I feel like if you just want to try it and then you don’t want to do it, again, there’s just. No worries.
Just try it. I think it would be fun. To try that. Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: I know there’s a lot of people who are out there who want to try it and think they’re funny, they’re amazing people. They make people laugh and I think it is fun. And so I think it is scary though. It’s so scary getting up there.
Stephanie McHugh: Yes.
Andrea Vahl: Talking about personal things. I remember when I was writing about how I was worried I was terrible mom, and I was like, So scared about saying that. Even saying that. Oh yeah. Or even saying some of the things that I say about my kids. . .
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah. It’s freeing though a little bit, isn’t it?
Andrea Vahl: It is freeing. It’s so freeing. And so I think that if you are thinking about trying stand up. A class is a great way to get started. I feel like then it adds a little structure to it. Open mics are hard. Talk about, talk about going to an open mic as a, 30-something female. How was that?
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah, it was it was tough, but I did have one friend Matt Vogel who was. Maybe six months to a year ahead of me. So it was really nice to have someone who knew. Cause back in the, when was it? It was 2001 when I started. So 911 happened like a couple months after I had started. I would say break it down into baby steps, don’t feel like A: I think you’re totally right and there’s so many great classes out there, even online, take a class online. Just so you kinda get an idea of how to do the structure and then check out a place a couple of times. So you find out who’s, running the room, how does it go? How much time do people do what?
And just get a, so you feel really comfortable with that part. And then, You can just focus on when you’re on stage, which will be terrifying. And exciting, right? Yeah. The first time getting on
Andrea Vahl: It is so exciting and I think it is hard. I do think that open mics are tough because I definitely feel as a middle-aged woman, in a lot of times, open mics are full of 20-something-year-old guys not really getting, not really vibing with my midlife crisis humor here, it is scary cuz you may not get a laugh from that group, but I think, what has been really fun for me, and you’ve been on the Moms on Hing show several times is that you can find your group, you can find, we pack a room full of moms and they all get our humor.
Right, That’s right. They get it. And so I realize that maybe that audience isn’t right for you but another audience is for sure.
Stephanie McHugh: So a hundred percent. Yeah, because A: there’s being funny and then B: the audience has to relate to what you’re saying. If they don’t, get it, then they, it’s not that, it’s not funny, necessary.
I wouldn’t say that. I remember Jerry Seinfeld had a commercial back in the nineties when his sitcom was out and he was performing standup in England and the audience was just sitting there staring at him. So then he went out and he learned how to play cricket, and then he went to the pub and he did all these things and then he went back on stage and as an American.
And we didn’t know any of the lingo that he said, but then the audience went crazy. So I would say that’s something to keep in mind.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome.
Stephanie McHugh: And also not let it like still be okay to go to an sometimes I go to Anthony Crawford’s Lions Layer. They have an open mic on Monday night at 10:00 AM or 10:00 PM
And it’s just don’t judge the audience and leave a space. And you, I think you would be surprised. Often they don’t judge you either. The bottom line is it funny or not?
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
So now you, okay, so you didn’t plan on becoming, like this being your full-time gig. Are, I know you’ve done different things along the way.
You’ve got some great bits about being an Uber driver, right? And then Covid years. That was a whole different thing. Yes. But talk about how, what has shifted for you in terms of now deciding this, you’re going all in with this.
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah. It is, for me, it’s a daily reminder. I have to remind myself every day what the big picture is and then what are the little steps I can do today cuz I will get sidetracked so fast.
And then it’s a balancing act because I find I need to do something. To write something about I’m such an introvert. If I left my own devices, I would just be by myself. And then there’s nothing funny about that. , I’m a great audience and that’s funny. So I, my dad just passed away, so I thought, I’m going to learn how to golf.
A lot of people golf and. The people that I talk to who do golf go, that is the most frustrating thing you could ever do. And I’m like, perfect. There will always be limitless material then.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. So now how did, so let’s get back. I’ve got totally off-sidetracked. I sent you questions and then I have gone off the rails here in terms of questions. So let me ask one that I love to ask. Especially for you, because you know you had wanted to do comedy and then didn’t, and now you came back to it.
But if you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would that be?
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah. Oh, that’s a good question. I think, oh my goodness. The first thing that came to my mind, And this is not right. It’s like just, I really wanted to be a mom but I always thought you should wait till you’re older.
I think I would’ve just had my kids earlier don’t worry about what everybody says. Do what feels right to you. Cause for whatever reason, after I have my kids, I’m like, all right, now what can I, what do I do now that I got my first priority out of the way? Now what are some other things that I would do?
So let me generalize that a little bit more. Do what feels right for you, even though it may not feel right in society.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah.
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah, you’d be amazed, and I think that’s a relatable thing. Because regardless of what you’re doing, people feel like they’re different, yeah. They don’t fit into the crap that is a universal feeling.
Yeah. So you acting on it and showing up and being big about it is going to draw people towards you, even if they may not be into the same thing you are, if that makes sense. So just try whatever and it’s going to be ok.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s huge because really like we all feel different. I’m like if we’re all different then, aren’t we all the same? I don’t know.
Stephanie McHugh: Yes, that is exactly it.
Andrea Vahl: We can’t, and I think that’s it too, is that sometimes I know I talk to people who are like, oh, I never felt like I belonged. I’m like, we can’t all not belong. Who??
Stephanie McHugh: Yes.
Andrea Vahl: So I think it is hard to feel different though.
I think that we want to, it’s a weird thing to feel like we want to fit in all the time and something about our caveman instincts there too.
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah, and let’s preface too, I said everything will be okay. It’s going to hurt sometimes doing what you want to do or taking the path. You know that most others aren’t specifically taking there, there’s going to be other pains.
And to me, I feel like that’s been the journey, getting over that quickly and moving on. I muddled a little while with just beating myself up a little bit. Or find a way strategically to get out of that quickly.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. Yeah. Having a short memory I think is good.
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: So what do you think has been an advantage for you to starting comedy later in life? What has been something that’s worked in your favor in that journey?
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah. I suppose I, I hemmed and hawed, too much. So when I decided to do it, I decided to do it. So and just took baby steps to get there.
Yeah. Make the decision and then take baby steps and alternate as you need to on the path.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah, just dive in and go for it. Yeah. Yeah. And now talk about how your Dry Bar comedy special came about, cuz that is so awesome. I love that you have that out now. I watched that channel a lot and I just think it’s so amazing they’ve got such great comedians in there, yourself included of course. And how did that feel when you got that.
Stephanie McHugh: I yes, Mike at Comedy Works Entertainment, called and said, Hey, I’d like to submit you for a Dry Bar special. And this was in December of 2020, so right in the middle of the pandemic. So I had not been on stage. Hardly at all. And when I was on stage it was like outside.
Where they’re 25 feet between you. I mean everything. Andrea, that’s perfect for standup comedy was a violation of health codes for Covid , everyone far apart, so you gotta cram people in to make the laughter contagious. So it was really, so I said, first of all, yes, I would love to please submit and please gimme four months to practice just because they are a clean show.
And I kinda ride the sexual innuendo sometimes, and that you could, they, they say you can do whatever you want, but you want to be in there (and do) what works best for their audience.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Stephanie McHugh: So I got it and I got an April date and then I practiced on Zoom calls to my parents, my mom and dad every night to get the words.
Cuz that’s what I find when I listen back to my sets. I record ’em all, and I don’t listen to all of ’em. When I listen, I realize that I just have a slight hesitation sometimes if I’m not sure what I’m going to say next. And the more you perform, the easier the more it flows off. And so I just wanted it to be set in there like stone.
So I would just do a Zoom call and practice my dues comedy show to my parents. Like I was 12 years old in the school play.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome. That is awesome. I love that. Whatever works.
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: I don’t think I could do that with my mom. I’ve got some material on her,
Stephanie McHugh: My dad passed away and I had a show coming up, so my mom said, you could practice, and it’s not the same without my dad.
She’s I’m going to give you some notes. For going. I’m like, oh, no. Nope. No, we’re not.
Andrea Vahl: I don’t want your notes. Mom,
Stephanie McHugh: I love you very much. Thank you for, bring us into the world but no, no notes.
But, oh, I also too, like just. I’m going back to if you want to try comedy, how to make it comfortable for yourself. So I have two daughters that are now 24 and 27. So I asked the younger one who lives here. I’m like, could you please go to Utah with me? Because my kids, they’ve been with me the whole time and they’re really good at just sort of chilling with me and I just feel more comfortable and like light a little bit.
I can get too much if I let myself go worry, . Wait, worry, start. And so if I have one of them with me they’re good and they give me pretty good feedback. I like the feedback that they give me.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome. Yeah. I think it’s important to have kind of those trusted people who you can bounce things off of.
I know, I’ve had over the years different comedy mastermind buddies that we run material by. Yeah. Punch it up, all that kind of stuff. I think that’s super, super helpful.
Stephanie McHugh: So it is great. Yeah. And you gotta find someone that you click with. Cause early on there weren’t that many women, so sometimes men would come up to me and say, you should say this.
But, oh, I remember one. And again, they were being really nice. I. I keep my junk in the top drawer, not the bottom. Talking about I have big boobs and no ass, which still bothers me to this day. . And he said, he used a car analogy. He said, you should do the hood and the trunk of the car. And it made sense, but it was his analogy. And I thought, I just don’t relate to that. I think I’m going to keep my own cuz it relates. So not one is wrong, but what feels right to you to say it is your voice.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And sometimes people can give you a great punchline. Other times you’re like, I would never say that I had one guy who was, I talked about, I talked about how.
In my day, lunch was a slice of baloney side of Cheetos and a ding dong. And this guy was like, you should talk about how your uncle had a ding dong or so I was like, no! What are you talking about? Made you sit on his lap… I’m like no!
Stephanie McHugh: All of a sudden we’re to catch a predator mode. My uncle’s a nice man. Yeah,
Andrea Vahl: It was, it’s really weird when people try and give you punchlines for sure. Let’s see, what else? Oh, do you feel like there’s been like obstacles that you have had to overcome in this whole journey around doing your comedy?
What has been an obstacle that you’ve come up against?
Stephanie McHugh: Yeah. I always feel like the four agreements are good and the main one that I think comedians back me up if you think can take things personally, don’t take things personally. And I’m not talking about onstage. I think I talk a lot about offstage, like trying to get gigs and things like that. And then recently I’ve really been working on my mindset before I go on stage and that it just takes an hour or two to get ready.
Rest on the mindset alone to be and then work on getting the words right. Cuz I will trip up on my words a little bit and that makes a difference for me. I notice it, it sort of. The audience subconsciously it just doesn’t get it rolling as much. So my mindset, I spend a lot of time now getting, I want to say happy, I feel like there’s a better word, but just in the right frame of mind to go out.
I’m like, Hey, these people came. I think about the people the day of the show. I’m like, how exciting. I forgot how it was to have a, like a regular date night. Cause I’ve been doing this so long. I’m like, wonder how that is to, I get ready and go out and see a show. How fun would that be?? And see me. You better bring it.
And then I’m like, oh my gosh, I better bring it. I’m like, of course we’re going to have a good time. This is going to be good. So that’s it in a nutshell, but just really spending the time to do that. And I do it for emails now too. Like I get so stressed writing emails sometimes, so I do spend that same time before I write emails or do the business side getting .
Andrea Vahl: I think the thing that is interesting about comedy is how, like you mentioned, how important the words are and they can, if you switch ’em around, it can really like totally take things out of a joke,
Stephanie McHugh: oh, it totally can. Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. And then, and that can be the same in an email. I think as it’s not as clear, whatever, and I think just the performance of it too. All of a sudden it takes me out oh, I didn’t say that and then I’m thinking about that on stage and then I’m like, oh, you guys are still here. ,
Stephanie McHugh: I will do that too. So here’s one thing that I’ve done recently is I will just call myself on it or share that like I was performing at a country club in Boulder and as I was driving there, I’m like, oh my gosh.
I used to take my daughter to her horseback riding lessons just right down the street to someone who did really well with level three stock in the early 2000s and had this massive horse ranch. And I’m like, oh, these people. And you walk in, and I did my joke about I’m trying to be perfect, but I’m just going to do the 80/20 rule and you can get so much more done when you’re only doing 20%.
That’s the joke. And as I saying, 20%, I am looking at these women in the front row and going, they have never 20 percented anything . So I was getting kinda quiet and then you go, they hate me. This group just hates me. And then I’m like, we’re just going to talk about it right now. So it’s a balance of you have your material and then what’s going on in that moment.
Yeah. Yeah. So I shared it. I go, I just realized that you guys don’t care about this, joke or not care. But anyway. Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. Relate to it. They don’t relate that, that, that is so funny. And I bet that killed it too. I bet that
Stephanie McHugh: just totally worked.
Andrea Vahl: Crushed. Yeah,
Stephanie McHugh: it was great.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. That’s awesome. That is awesome.
Okay, I could talk to you like for hours as we know, but I want to just go through a couple of things. One of the things is I like to ask if you had to describe yourself or your life in one sentence, what would that be?
Stephanie McHugh: Oh my gosh.
Oh, I feel like I’m going to cry because my dad just died and I keep hitting my little thing. She made people laugh. She, when she left the room, people were happy, happier women.
Andrea Vahl: I love that. I love that and I actually that I think that’s something that I actually want on my tombstone as well.
Stephanie McHugh: Oh,
Andrea Vahl: I think you can. You can have it too. We can both have it.
Stephanie McHugh: We can both have it. Yeah. Yeah. I just like that behind it is, I would watch the standup comedians on Johnny Carson when I was a little girl, and I thought, I just want to make people laugh. So the surgeon can laugh and then go to sleep that night and have a good night’s sleep and do what he does best the next day or whatever.
The teacher or. Mom or dad or whatever. They can laugh. So they can, yeah.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome. Yeah. That’s awesome. And then the final thing that I always like to ask people is, what is a favorite quote or, just inspirational thing that you can share? I love, I’m a quote junkie, so I love it.
Stephanie McHugh: I love that. I will even give you the song, I don’t know if we can play the song, but it, but I, the quote is, From Tom Cruise’s character in risky business, “Sometimes you gotta say what the fuck and just do it!” . And then my band, I love the Blue Stones. They’re a small band from Canada. I almost said they’re a small band from Canadian, but there’s actually Canada, and they have that in the beginning of their song, one of their songs. So I’ve heard it a lot lately.
Andrea Vahl: That is great. I think that is a good lesson for us all after Covid, after all the things that happened last few years, just do. So I’ll just say that together. Yeah. One big mantra.
Stephanie McHugh: You can always go back. You can always go back. Yeah. Yeah. At least you try. Yeah.
Andrea Vahl: So Stephanie, it’s been awesome talking to you. If you want to, we’ll have links in the show notes here to Stephanie’s Dry Bar comedy special. Definitely go and follow her on Instagram at @StephComedy. She’s on also on Facebook. What’s the Facebook, Stephanie?
Stephanie McHugh: It’s Stephanie Mchugh Comedian.
Andrea Vahl: Awesome. We’ll have links to all of those and Stephanie, I know I’ll be seeing you around in, in some of our upcoming shows, but thank you so much for being a guest here and so wonderful to chat.
Stephanie McHugh: It was so fun to chat with you too. Thank you for having me, Andrea.
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